San Francisco chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski were among the attendees at an after-hours Maine lobster tasting party in Portland, where new-shell lobster was the only item on the menu. They and other far-flung chefs spent a day on a lobster boat, mingled with lobstermen, talked to local chefs experienced with different ways to prepare it and ate buckets of it, be it on toast, in a chowder or on a bun.

“I’ve always liked lobster, but I fell in love with the story” of how it’s caught and by whom, Krasinski said. “We’ve had it before as a special, but it’s definitely going on our menu.”

That’s exactly the response the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, a group organized four years ago to promote Maine lobster, wanted to hear. It validates the collaborative’s two-year campaign to familiarize chefs with new-shell lobsters – also called soft-shells or shedders because they have just molted – through a series of tasting parties and marketing events in foodie cities across the nation.

Building that kind of demand is good for Maine’s $533 million lobster fishery, said collaborative director Matt Jacobson, especially in the summer, when almost all of the 6,500 licensed lobstermen are fishing, and much of the coastline is rolling in product. The new-shell campaign focuses on building demand in nontraditional lobster markets when supply is at its highest.

But some Maine lobstermen, especially those who fish Down East, say the collaborative’s focus on selling new-shell lobster in the summer is not helping them. They don’t start catching a lot of new shells until fall, when restaurants that focus on seasonal fare trade in lobster for mussels or duck and the biggest buyers left are Canadian processors eager to finally have the new-shell lobster market to themselves.

“Getting some chef in Dallas to put Maine new-shell lobsters on the summer menu doesn’t help me,” said John Drouin of Cutler, chairman of the lobster management zone that covers Schoodic Point east to the Canadian border. “The guys who are catching shedders right now are loving it, but I won’t even see a shedder until September. I need lobster on that Dallas menu come October.”

The collaborative launched the chef-focused marketing campaign last summer, holding four “Maine After Midnight” tasting parties. Every chef that heard the “new-shell story” from a Maine lobsterman’s mouth eventually put it on the menu, Jacobson said. Some couldn’t even wait one day to do it. In Atlanta, a seafood distributor told Jacobson he got 22 calls for new shell the morning after their event.

Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, talks with San Francisco restaurant owner Stuart Brioza at the “Maine After Midnight” event at the downtown Portland restaurant The Honey Paw on June 12. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The summer buzz generated by the collaborative’s $2.2 million marketing campaign, combined with the growing demand for American lobster in China, helped keep the average price per pound paid out to Maine lobstermen above $4 for the second year in a row, despite a record high 130-million pound state catch. That is success, any way you slice it, said Jacobson.

But Down East, lobstermen saw their boat prices fall during their peak soft-shell season, which is September, October and November, Drouin said. The 38-year fisherman earned 6 cents a pound less on his 2016 catch than he had the year before, and it would have been worse if it weren’t for high hard-shell prices in the spring. Last October, his busiest time, he was earning 50 cents a pound less than he did in 2015.

The lobstermen who fish in the state’s easternmost waters landed 28 million pounds last year, the second-biggest harvest in the state, behind only the zone that includes the county’s lobster capital, Stonington-Vinalhaven. But those eastern fishermen were paid $3.79 a pound for their lobster, the lowest per-pound price of any of the state’s seven regions. The state average was $4.07.

CALLS FOR MORE IMPACT

The collaborative has always been a controversial topic in lobster fishing circles. Other regional foods have promotional boards with far bigger budgets – California avocado, Georgia peaches, California almonds – and some fishermen say it’s long past time that Maine got serious about promoting its signature food. Others resent paying higher fishing license fees to underwrite the collaborative’s $2.2 million budget.

This winter, the Maine Lobstering Union, a statewide lobstering cooperative of about 500 members, urged state lawmakers to scrap the collaborative this year and use that savings to pay for an increase in the state Department of Marine Resources lobster science research. Initially, the department had considered raising license fees to fund the expanded science program, but Gov. Paul LePage later urged the department to find some other funding mechanism.

“There are better ways to spend a lobsterman’s hard-earned dollar than fancy dinner parties,” said union President Rocky Alley of Jonesport.

The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative had gift bags for everyone who attended “Maine After Midnight.” Some in the industry would like marketing money spent with a broader focus. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher and Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, whose 1,200 members make up the oldest and largest fishing industry trade group on the East Coast, came to the defense of the collaborative when the union took aim at its budget. The industry has never been doing better, they said, and the marketing campaign is one reason why.

Unlike the union, Drouin doesn’t want to get rid of the collaborative, but he would like to rewrite its mission to benefit all lobstermen, not simply those who live in the southwestern part of the state. Add a fall marketing campaign to help those with a late shed, he said. Even better, tell the chefs in San Francisco and Chicago that lobster season runs through November, Drouin said. It can be a seasonal special up to Thanksgiving.

“People think of Maine lobster as summer food, but it’s more fall than summer,” Drouin said. “It tastes even better in October than July.”

The collaborative does not stop marketing lobster come fall, Jacobson notes. Last year, it mounted a small online “lobster tail-gating” push on social media to help dealers who couldn’t unload lobster tails. It will hold its last chef event in New York City, the world’s largest media market, in late September this year, which will generate interest in Maine lobster well into October and beyond.

The collaborative also worked with the Maine congressional delegation to establish a National Lobster Day in September – yes, it’s one of two out there, but this one is the “official” one – that last year drummed up media exposure that if purchased would have cost more than $330,000, all in September and October, Jacobson said.

“We have begun the conversation with new shell in the summer,” he said. “We absolutely keep the conversation going through the fall.”

ADVOCATING FOR A BROADER REACH

The collaborative doesn’t do a big hard-shell lobster campaign in the winter, Jacobson admits. It would be tricky to differentiate the American hard-shell lobster product from the Canadian, he said. Maine dealers also buy Canadian lobster to ship to their clients, and he doesn’t want to work against their interests. After all, dealers, processors and wholesalers fund the collaborative’s budget, too.

But members of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association worry about the narrow focus and effectiveness of the new-shell campaign, too.

They would like the collaborative to use some of its marketing money to help them sell lobsters abroad, such as printing promotional brochures to help non-English speakers understand that a so-called Boston lobster most likely comes from Maine, and that lobsters caught in U.S. waters are the same species as what is caught in Canada, said spokeswoman Annie Tselikis, who also sits on the collaborative’s board. After discussions, the collaborative seems open to a strategy shift.

Many dealers, including Tselikis, think it’s misleading to attribute the strong prices in a growing lobster market to successful placement on fine dining restaurant menus. Some of it was just timing, Tselikis said. The early molt in 2012 flooded the lobster market and prices dropped, prompting dealers to head to Asia to open up new international markets. Even the food truck craze played its part. She warned that equating boat prices with success is a dangerous strategy for the collaborative.

“You can’t take credit for everything just because your timing is perfect,” Tselikis said. “If you take credit for keeping boat prices high, you better get ready to take the blame when it falls. And it will fall. That is just the way of the market. You can take steps to insulate your business from it. You can do your best to avoid them, but it’s international trade. It’s always in flux.”

Despite the collaborative’s effort to impress restaurant chefs, the number of American restaurant diners interested in ordering lobster declined in 2016, Tselikis said. According to Technomic, a foodservice consulting firm, about 62 percent of diners surveyed said they would order lobster at least occasionally compared to 68 percent of consumers who said they would order it in 2014.

Dealers also got frustrated last year when they learned the collaborative didn’t work with the seafood suppliers in the cities they visited on the “Maine After Midnight” tour in advance to make sure the chefs who wanted to put Maine lobster on the menu could buy it promptly, and with ease.

“Everybody likes to focus on the story of the harvester, but a lot of this is logistics, too,” Tselikis said.

Justin Papkee, center, a lobsterman from Long Island, speaks with out-of-town guests at the “Maine After Midnight” event hosted by the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative at The Honey Paw. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

IN DEFENSE OF MARKETING’S TIMING

But with a budget just a third the size of the California almond board, the collaborative has to face one problem at a time, Jacobson said.

And for the collaborative, that problem is that Maine lobster is a seasonal market, so prices are likely to drop when fishermen are catching the most. Seventy percent of Maine’s total lobster harvest is new shell and most new shell is harvested in late summer, he said. The late summer boom, he said, is the industry’s most vulnerable time.

“Nobody wants a repeat of that pound boat price we had in 2012,” Jacobson said, referring to $2.69 per pound average earned in 2012. “That is what we were created to prevent. That is why getting chefs to put lobsters on summer menus is a good thing. Chefs like the seasonality of it, the freshness, and so do their customers. We like the timing of it because it keeps our product prices supported at a time when our landings are highest.”

The new-shell campaign is nice for timing, but it also provides the market exactly what it wants, Jacobson said. The collaborative doesn’t have the budget to sway huge food buying chains, which focus on logistics and price more than anything else. But it can influence chefs, who in turn influence customers and big chains. And chefs care about sustainability, seasonability, story and culinary versatility, he said.

“Maine new-shell lobster scores off the charts in every one of those categories,” Jacobson said. “Once they hear the story, they’re sold.”

HOBNOBBING AND HAULING

The number of lobstermen who want to hit the tasting party circuit has ballooned from a dozen last spring to more than 100 this year. Everyone who went last year has asked to go again, Jacobson said. While some may dread all the media interviews, the fishermen love the all-expenses-paid travel and the chance to talk shop with an eager audience that represents the end stage of the lobster’s trap-to-table journey.

The group held its first out-of-state tasting party of the new, expanded summer campaign in Dallas the week before last, which drew 106 local chefs and members of the media. They trained chefs and staff on how to serve and sell lobster at eight restaurants. The visit sparked four broadcast TV segments that featured the visiting Maine lobstermen, more than 200 mentions in the media and 201 social media postings that reached an estimated 1.2 million people, Jacobson said. They also had a lunch with local fish purveyors and distributors, the people who sell directly to the restaurants, including one who thinks he can double his lobster business.

“It is misleading to describe the effort as simply a party,” Jacobson said. “It is so much more than that.”

Two weeks ago, Portland fisherman Dave Laliberte chatted with Giuseppe Tentori, an award-winning seafood chef who will host this summer’s Chicago tasting, about fishing conservation and their shared intolerance for all things lactose over pints of Allagash and lobster carpaccio at The Honey Paw in Portland’s Old Port. Laliberte had taken Tentori out to haul a few traps aboard the Lucky Catch earlier that day.

Laliberte was soaking up Tentori’s stories about growing up in Milan, as well as Tentori’s obvious admiration, along with the craft IPA.

They ended a lively conversation with a manly hug and a round of belly-busting laughs.

“That, that right there, that’s what is going to put lobster on the menu,” said Krasinski, the San Francisco bakery chef. “He’s always going to remember that fisherman who taught him how to lobster. He’s going to tell that story to every employee, every customer he meets. When they first asked us to do this, I thought, the lobster needs help? But then I got out here and I thought, yes, this story is a good one. It has to be told.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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