Mainebiz Lobster Without Fear Lobster Without Fear Maine Biz, December 8, 2003 Lobster Without Fear Hancock Gourmet Lobster scores with customers by doing the dirty work for them. By: Rebecca ZicarelliMainebiz, December 8, 2003 When she founded Hancock Gourmet Lobster Company three years ago, Cal Hancock wanted to find a way to take the fear out of serving lobster. "Lots of places sell live lobster, but people don't want to deal with it," she says. "It's messy, they don't know ho to cook it, they don't know how to serve it." Recognizing a business opportunity when she saw it, Hancock set out to create an array of high-end products easy enough for home cooks to serve without fear, and fancy enough for upscale restaurants to serve with pride. "Our products are convenient and elegant," Hancock says. The company began with one product, Cundy's Harbor Lobster Stew. In 2001, Hancock purchased the recipe and customer list for LeBlanc's Gourmet Lobster Stew, once made at the Presque Isle restaurant Winnie's. Since then Hancock Lobster has grown to include a lineup of ten specialty food items, developed in a Cundy's Harbor test kitchen and based on creative ways of serving lobster without the fuss. One of Hancock's newest products, Pemaquid Point Lobster Pot Pies--chunks of lobster meat floating in a rich cream sauce, topped with lobster-shaped puff pastry and packaged in a reusable ceramic ramekin--won an award in July at the Fancy Food Show, put on by the National Association of Specialty Food Trades in New York, for outstanding meat, pate or seafood. The award is one of a string of positive events for the company, which has seen its revenues nearly triple since 2000. Though Hancock won't disclose specific figures, she will say that the company, with four fulltime employees, will post its first annual profit this year. It hasn't hurt that a recent episode of the Food Network's "Food Finds" focusing on comfort foods included a visit to Hancock Gourmet Lobster. The national exposure is buttressed by the availability of Hancock's products on Amazon.com's new gourmet food website, and in gourmet catalogs including Mackenzie Ltd., Williams-Sonoma and, as late November, Dean & Deluca. In the short term, Hancock plans to keep the focus on mail order sales directly to consumers via her website (www.hancocklobster.com) and the catalogs. Amazon sales are just beginning to trickle in, but she expects them to increase as the holidays approach since the gourmet site is new and her products are often sold as gifts. To increase sales beyond the holiday season, she's cultivating wholesale accounts with upscale restaurants and gourmet food stores. The latter market is where Hancock is likely to face a challenge. According to Chris Crocker, NASFT's vice president of media development, getting noticed by retailers, getting on their shelves and staying on the shelves are the challenges for the thousands of small companies that form the specialty foods industry. "There are a lot of products vying for limited shelf space. It's challenging to get on the map," he says. "There tends to be a higher turnover in the products retailers carry because they're always trying to challenge and interest the consumer." Growth by design Hancock is no stranger to the Maine lobster scene. Four generations of her family have owned and operated the Ogunquit Lobster Pound Restaurant, now run by two cousins. Like everyone in the family, she worked there as a teen during the busy summer months. It's where she discovered, as she puts it, that "people don't know what to do with a lobster when they see it sitting in front of them." When Hancock purchased the recipe for LeBlanc's Gourmet Lobster Stew, its customer list included gourmet giant Williams-Sonoma catalog, as well as for several restaurants ( including Winnie's), but she's renamed it Cundy's Harbor Lobster Stew for sale from her website and in other catalogs, part of her penchant for naming products after Maine coast locations. And she continues to talk with other gourmet mail-order suppliers about carrying her products. Laura McManus, president of Baltimore, Md.-based Mackenzie Ltd., found Hancock's lobster products at last year's Fancy Food Show, and added the lobster stew and pot pies to her August catalog. "I commend them; I've never had such success with any new product so fast," McManus says, adding that she plans to carry all of Hancock's products in her catalog next year because of Hancock's commitment to quality and customer service. "That's unusual; with most vendors, I cherry-pick their product line. I look to put more business in places where people are easy to do business with." Hancock says she also spends a lot of time talking with existing customers like Williams-Sonoma and potential customers including QVC and Costco--both approached her after the Fancy Food Show--about developing products for their needs that would be sold with their labels instead of Hancock's . While she'd welcome such growth, it would come with its own problems, not least of which is distribution. "I like control over the quality of the product," she says. "When you do wholesale, you do a lot of shipping. Right now, we do all our shipping with Federal Express. I'm beginning to talk with distributors because the wholesale customers are beginning to add up." Crocker of NASFT cautions that specialty food producers have to find ways to grow while maintaining the quality of existing products and developing new ones. "Owners often over-invest, and try to grow too fast. The costs of distribution are so high that companies frequently damage their margins and can't operate profitably," he says. "When a product is made by a handful of people, the staff can maintain quality, but when companies expand, they look for automation and economies. There's often a reduction of quality as they try to squeeze more from the margins. Hancock says her determination to control quality and the high cost of her products. Instead, she says she'd like to try exporting to other countries, where the mystique of Maine lobster is huge. In the long run, Hancock things it will be important for her company to diversify beyond lobster products, saying, "If anything happens to the lobster industry, I'd be in a pickle." But the company's production facility in Brunswick is already bursting at the seams. Before she can take on many more lobster products or diversify to other seafoods, Hancock says she'll have to expand the plant. As for the longer term, "I'd like to grow the company so that it's still a niche company, but ultimately a multimillion dollar company," say says. "Not a Pillsbury or a General Mills, but a solid company that introduces products every year, and has great customer service.