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Not just another pot pie
by Leslie Bowman
John Phinney and Alan Furth Photo: Leslie Bowman
Local seasonal seafood, a community in search of a way to add value to traditional fishing, and few good ideas from an educational and socially oriented non-profit are the basic ingredients of Cobscook Bay Company's Maine Fresh seafood pies. But it would be just another pot pie in search of an appetite if it were not for their world class recipe and a business plan being carefully crafted for a January 2011 launch.
The Cobscook Community Learning Center (CCLC) in Trescott was organized in 1999 as a community hub for cultural and educational exchange. The fifty-acre property is a work in progress that presently includes three of five planned buildings, an organic garden and a beautifully crafted outdoor theatre. Course offerings range from belly dancing to beginning chainsaw, and the large common building is shared by various groups for hosting meetings. To continue to grow, support the educational programs and further their mission for a sustainable community, board members under the direction of executive director, Alan Furth, recognized the need to generate revenue. "We are creating a unique business model with a for-profit helping to support a non-profit," says Furth.
CCLC created a business plan for a partnership with a for-profit using funding from the United States Department of Agriculture's Resource, Conservation and Development program. CCLC then began exploring recipes and testing products in informal settings. The business plan sat on a desk for several years while the group waited for the right partner to come along.
John Phinney, president of Cobscook Bay Company, is from a fishing family that straddles the international border. He has been in the wholesale and retail seafood business for over ten years. He is currently the largest supplier of sea urchins in the country and a major supplier of seafood to out of state markets, but he hates to see the resource go down the highway. "We are shipping thousands of pounds of seafood out of here, mostly to Boston. I want to change the take-away economy to a production economy." He had heard of the CCLC business plan and approached Furth who was still searching for a facility. Today the finishing touches are being made to turn his converted fish market into a pie-making facility. As the chief operating officer, Phinney will manage the production of four types of seafood pies during peak harvest times, scallops in early winter, then shrimp in late winter, crab in the spring and lobster in summer.
CCLC marketing director, Cynthia Major was shopping test pies to friends and relatives when she realized that taste is everything and it was lacking. Because of a past business association with Fore Street restaurant co-owner and executive chef, Sam Hayward, she was able to spark his interest in the project.
Hayward's involvement caused an instant buzz. He is one of Maine's most lauded chefs, and was named the Northeast's best chef by the James Beard Foundation. "I recognized the economic challenges facing Washington County that still relies on an old-style resource base and I went for a visit," Hayward says of his first meeting at CCLC in Trescott, which happened to coincide with a memorial gathering of over sixty people. "They were in a circle, singing and playing instruments, with such respect for each other. I was totally charmed and intoxicated, how could I say no."
"This is the perfect combination of community, food and the most beautiful place in Maine," says Hayward. But he admits to the challenge of creating a seafood pie made with all natural ingredients and not relying on the typical synthetic additives. "It took a long time to figure out how we were going to do it," he says of the "clean label" status, which will mark the product. He is keeping true to his core philosophy of "real food for real people with no industrial products."
Commercializing a great tasting pie, with concern for quality, scale and marketing is overseen by Jeff Johnson, company CEO. "It is important that we do this right for the social mission" he says of the scaling-up operations that are currently underway. With financial help from the Great Bay Foundation, a community development block grant and a loan from Bar Harbor Bank and Trust, the Cobscook Bay Company is well positioned to begin full production in the coming year. Cobscook Bay Company's Maine Fresh pies will help provide stable prices for locally harvested wild seafood and create steady employment in the Trescott facility. An additional goal is to buy all local vegetables, herbs and dairy products. As planned from the outset, a portion of the profits will go to Cobscook Community Learning Center to promote their programs. "We are very interested in this being a success as a viable and enduring business" says Johnson. Downeast's freshest seafood in a pie that was developed by one of Maine's premier chefs is a tantalizing start.