A growing number of Mainers are taking the state’s native cuisine to other regions of the U.S. by starting food truck businesses that serve Maine lobster rolls, fried clams, haddock sandwiches, bisques, chowders and even whoopee pies.
The proliferation of Maine lobster food trucks in places such as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Phoenix and Atlanta is part of a trend of chefs opening gourmet food truck businesses catering to a wide variety of tastes, said a restaurant industry analyst.
The National Restaurant Association recently named food trucks one of the fastest-growing segments of the food service industry, said Aaron Allen, founder and CEO of Aaron Allen & Associates, an Orlando-based restaurant consulting firm.
That trend has been driven largely by “frustrated, underfunded chefs” who are looking for a less expensive way to serve their food to customers, he said.
“Food trucks are the lowest cost of entry into the restaurant business,” Allen said. An increase in demand also is driving the trend, he said.
Maine natives started Freshie’s Lobster in Park City, Utah, in 2007. Another group of entrepreneurs from Maine founded Red Hook Lobster Pound in Washington, D.C., in 2010.
That business, operated by Doug Povich, Leland Morris and Susan Povich, now has two trucks in Washington and one in Brooklyn, New York, along with a lobster restaurant in Brooklyn operated by Susan Povich.
Perhaps the best-known entrepreneurs are Sabin Lomac and Jim Tselikis, two native Mainers who have built a successful business selling lobster and other Maine cuisine out of food trucks in Los Angeles.
They founded the business, Cousins Maine Lobster, in 2012 and have expanded it to three trucks, a catering service and online direct-to-consumer sales with help from a private investor they met while appearing on the entrepreneur reality show “Shark Tank.” The company also is starting a franchise business.
Lomac said the long lines of customers at Cousins Maine Lobster trucks are proof that today’s consumers expect better-quality cuisine from mobile food vendors.
“People want a superior product,” he said.
The relatively low startup cost was a significant factor in their choice of food trucks over a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Lomac said. A food truck can cost about $80,000, he said, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a fixed-location eatery.
“Restaurants are really expensive,” Lomac said. “You’re committing to a long-term thing, and you don’t know if it’s going to work.”
Competition is intense in the restaurant industry, Allen said, with a great deal of geographic and menu overlap.
Choosing the wrong location can be a recipe for disaster, he said, which is something that doesn’t worry food truck owners. “With a food truck, you can just move it to a new location,” he said.
Isle au Haut residents Diana Santospago and Greg Runge just finished their third winter selling lobster and other Maine dishes out of a food truck in the Phoenix area, Santospago said.
Their business, The Maine Lobster Lady, is doing well, she said, and allows the couple to winter in Arizona and summer in Maine. “I feel so blessed to be able to do that,” Santospago said.
The idea came to them while they were visiting Runge’s daughter in Chandler, Arizona, she said. They noticed that there were very few options for consumers who wanted fresh, quality seafood dishes.
“It just seemed like people were lobster-deprived,” Santospago said.
Their observation has paid off, she said, as the business has gained hundreds of loyal customers. The Maine Lobster Lady sells out its inventory almost every day.
The greatest challenge in operating a Maine lobster food truck is ensuring a daily supply of fresh lobster, the business owners said.
Santospago was reluctant to discuss how she gets her lobsters, citing concerns about competitors copying her.
Fred Owen, a Kennebunkport native who is starting a lobster food truck business in Atlanta this month, said he is relying on a friend from Maine who delivers lobster by truck three times a week, along with overnight deliveries via FedEx.
Owen, who founded Tasting Maine with his wife, Patricia Arsenault, said they chose Atlanta because its population of about five million people offers plenty of potential lobster eaters. “It’s a gold mine,” he said.
Owen plans to work the business-lunch crowd from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., serve dinner from 5 to 9 p.m., and cater parties and corporate functions.
He said Atlanta’s food truck scene is incredibly diverse. There appears to be a market for just about every kind of food.
“There is a food truck serving Egyptian cuisine,” Owen said. “They even have one that serves Native American cuisine.”
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: