Pete McAleney walked into New Meadows Lobster on the Portland waterfront 37 years ago, intending to buy lobsters for visiting in-laws. He walked out with an offer to become a partner in the business, which he would soon accept.

McAleney, who had been a teacher, went on to buy out the partner in short order and New Meadows eventually became one of the state’s largest lobster dealers, supplying Hannaford supermarkets and many of the city’s restaurants, including the one next door – DiMillo’s on the Water.

Last week, a partnership of the family that owns DiMillo’s bought New Meadows for $1.6 million, which includes the wholesale and retail business and a 26,800-square-foot pier.

McAleney and his wife, Kathleen, will continue to run the business, although the new owners have asked McAleney to start thinking about a successor.

Last year, New Meadows sold about 2 million pounds of lobster and had about $10 million in annual sales. McAleney runs the business with his wife and son and one other employee.

Q: Why did you decide to sell?

A: My wife came up with the idea two or three years ago. We started looking when we were around 64 and decided we would like to enjoy things instead of working seven days a week. We had a couple of people interested, but DiMillo’s really wanted it.

I don’t want to leave the business and I’m not going to. I’ll be here as long as the DiMillos want me as partner. My wife, being from Louisiana, wants to go south for the winter, so we’re going. I haven’t had a vacation in a long time, even a weekend off. When you’re dealing with a live commodity and you’re not there, things tend to happen.

Q: What has the reaction been among your customers?

A: Everybody’s good with it. Portland is unique, there are a lot of good restaurants in town. I’m going to keep giving them good prices.

Q: There are a lot of concerns about the health of the lobster industry, even though catches seem to keep rising. What’s your take?

A: When we got in the business 37 years ago, the catch was about 20 million pounds and now it’s about 130 million pounds, so the lobster fishermen and the dealers have been doing something right and Mother Nature has been doing something right.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges the industry faces?

A: The state of Maine is in the upper right-hand corner of the country, so if you’re going to ship things, you’ve got to ship south. Or you’ve got to go by plane, which means going to Boston or New York for air freight. You have to be down there (four hours) early because of new regulations. It takes us two hours to get to the airport and then four hours to wait. So it’s difficult because of the regulations.

And we don’t have enough hard shell (lobsters) to take care of the world demand. When people say, “You’ve got to sell to new people,” they need to realize that people want hard shell lobsters and there’s not enough. The (soft shell) product is good, it just won’t live that long. Because airplanes can leave soft shells on a tarmac where it gets hot, we do a lot more trucking of soft shells. The profit margin is smaller, but you form a good relationship with the customer.

Q: Is seasonality a big problem?

A: You need lobsters in the summertime – that’s when people want them. You also have to realize you’ve got your business associates in Canada – notice how I said that – whose season will open up in a month right at the time our lobsters will be getting a firm hard shell. But it’s November and you don’t sell a lot of lobster in November. Then demand comes on strong in December and then it’s kaput. When you ship out at Christmastime, you have to worry about storms. We used to be big shippers to Belgium and France for the holidays – a lot of fishermen would help us pack the trucks and take them to Bangor (for shipping to Europe). But if there was snow, the flight would sit there and you would go crazy. You have to have a sense of humor in this business.

Q: Last year, there was a glut of lobsters, then there were concerns that the stock was down earlier this year. How is the year shaping up?

A: Every year is different in the lobster business. Last year, there was complaining and growling to get rid of the lobsters, but you couldn’t. We’ve got some (Maine) processors, but they (couldn’t handle the amount of lobster needing processing). This year, the catch didn’t hit until mid-July. Lobstermen love to get the lobsters just before the 4th of July, but we didn’t have any lobsters (for the holiday this year). The catch came in hard in mid-July and the lobsters were super soft.

So now, in October, the catch is going good and there’s nobody here (to buy lobsters). My customers down Route 1 closed up yesterday (Tuesday after Columbus Day). So it’s a son of a gun.

Q: What happens when you’re ready to retire fully?

A: They want me to train someone to take over my position. I haven’t decided yet, you have to find someone who’s half dumb like myself and someone big and strong to unload the lobster. We have an unwritten rule that there needs to be two people here when we unload. Two years ago I fell overboard on Jan. 2 – that water was cold. My son, Matt, was in the office, good thing. I hit my head hard and broke my nose. He (Matt) hears me and says, “Hey Pop, what are you doing down there?” Walking out, we were both laughing like hell, but that’s why you have two people with you.

Q: Is your son interested in running the operation?

A: He’s been here since he was eight years old and he’s got other interests. He’s 40 (years old) and has a young family and knows you have to work seven days a week. It’s tough on the wife. I’ve got a good wife, but she’s about had it because it’s working seven days a week and 10, 12, 15 hours a day.

Q: DiMillo’s opened up a few years after you took over New Meadows. Have you had a good relationship as neighbors?

A: We used to send Matt over (to DiMillo’s) for an order of hamburgers when he was really young. We’ve known each other for years. I remember when Steve DiMillo (now the manager of the restaurant) used to stand on a milk crate to wash the dishes. We all had the same business philosophy: “You make a little bit of money, I make a little bit of money.”

I really think Portland will grow by leaps and bounds. I would like to be a part of it, if I was younger. I’ve got so damn many stories, I’m going to write a book about the waterfront. It will be X-rated, too. All the bars are located straight up from here and we’ve seen some things. It’s been an interesting 37 years.


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