BIDDEFORD – When most people go to an aquarium, they focus on the fish.

But for a company based in the heart of Biddeford’s mill district, the focus is on the tank.

Marine Ecological Habitats has been making custom-built aquariums, lobster tanks and touch tanks for 10 years.

Last month, the company’s six employees were building custom lobster tanks for one of entrepreneur Linda Bean’s Maine restaurants.

What makes this company different in the tank industry is its willingness to collaborate with customers to create one-of-a-kind tanks.

“We’ve never been a company that takes one product and produces a gazillion of them,” owner Joe Zucchero said. “Instead of making something and trying to sell something (customers) don’t want, we (customize to) try to make something they want.”

Most companies in the field mass-produce aquariums or lobster tanks, which allows the product to be sold at a lower price. Marine Ecological Habitats focuses on quality versus quantity, making aquariums that start at $2,000 and can cost as much as a customer wants to spend, Zucchero said.

“It can get very pricey,” he said, adding that a typical customer of the company is “somebody who wants the best and not the lowest price.”

The Old Port Tavern in Portland underwent a recent mini-makeover that included adding aquariums. Owner Richard Herrera said he knew Zucchero, so choosing Marine Ecological Habitats was an easy choice.

“I think Joe could make anything you’d want. … I wanted to put the biggest (aquarium) I could in there,” Herrera said.

Employees of Marine Ecological Habitats worked closely with him, he said. “They’re easy to talk to,” Herrera said. “And it was seamless.”

While it specializes in aquariums made just for observing, Zucchero said about a third of the company’s business is making touch tanks for schools and museums.

It has produced more than 100 touch tanks, including one at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.

“All the creatures come from Casco Bay, which is exciting for local people and exciting for people from out of town,” said museum spokeswoman Lucy Bangor. “It makes it really special and relevant to your trip to Maine.”

Chris Sullivan, director of exhibits and operations, said working with Marine Ecological Habitats is convenient. He said the company has been helpful accommodating some of the museum’s “weird requests.”

“They tend to try out a lot of stuff with us,” he said, noting that the touch tank is on wheels so it can be easily moved.

Zucchero declined to give specific financial information regarding the company, but he said demand for custom aquariums and tanks has grown.

Ed Bilsky, professor of pharmacology at the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, attributed the business’s success to its willingness to work with customers and venture into different offerings. He invited Zucchero to speak during a summer internship program at the university for just that reason.

“Joe illustrated to (the students) that when the market fell out, you could either fold the business or adapt. He adapted his business,” Bilsky said.

Bilsky has worked with Zucchero in the past to create supplies for the university’s research laboratories. A student in the university’s summer internship program even developed a marketing plan for Zucchero to venture into producing more materials for biotechnical research, but Zucchero said the company is not quite ready to go down that business path.

But he’s always interested in trying something new to diversify his company.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]