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Cobscook Kitchen & Marketplace

Value-added food processing facilities—or community kitchens—provide affordable access for entrepreneurs, seafood harvesters, farmers, and other small business owners to kitchen facilities that would otherwise be financially inaccessible.

What Works: Cobscook Kitchen & Marketplace

In 1998, Will Hopkins started the Cobscook Bay Resource Center in Eastport, Maine with the goal of helping local resource users, scientific researchers, government agencies, educators, and others to monitor and understand the Cobscook Bay ecosystem, the waters that surround this remote former island at the easternmost tip of the United States.

Over time, the Resource Center began using that understanding to develop and implement strategies for economic development based on the Bay's renewable resources, particularly as a way to prop up its famous scallop fishery, which was beginning to flail in the mid-2000s.

What arose from that need was the idea for a shared-use commercial kitchen where scallop fishermen could test and develop products that would help capture the full value of their catch. The Resource Center also discovered an even greater need for the project, one shared by local farmers and restaurateurs: a way to market and distribute those products, which have been identified as primary barriers to success.

The for-profit Cobscook Marketplace accommodates that need by guiding members through the labeling and branding process of their product and then helping them to market it for distribution, both locally and in niche markets along the coast of Maine. 

How It Works

Fishermen, farmers, and other food producers join the co-op and, by an hour or daily rate, use the kitchen to develop new products with help from food experts at University of Maine-Orono. Co-op members then use the kitchen to produce their product which Cobscook Marketplace will help to market and distribute. This will help keep money in the local economy, support fishing families and family farms, reduce transportation costs, and ensure that fresh, healthy food stays available and becomes more affordable.

Key Factors

  • Garner long-term community support. The Cobscook Bay Resource Center spent nearly 20 years establishing relationships with the Eastport community and this project wouldn’t be possible without those connections.    
  • Invest in knowledgable food consultants. Food consultants design food processing facilities for a living and can help to save time and money in the long-run. 
  • Learn about federal and state food safety. These types of facilities meet federal and state guidelines for prepared foods—which are far stricter than household kitchens, restaurant kitchens, or deli counters.  
     

Scott Sell


Q&A with Will Hopkins, Director of Cobscook Bay Resource Center

Q: How did this project start?
A: The focus of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center at the start was water quality monitoring and marine resource education. But as we saw our scallop industry begin to flail, we recognized the importance of developing and implementing strategies for economic development based on the Bat’s renewable resources, which is where the idea for the kitchen and marketplace. 

Q: How is the scallop fishery important to Cobscook Bay?
A: Cobscook Bay is very different than the rest of the coast of Maine in that we do not have the same kind of lobster resource that you have everywhere else in the state.  Scallops are the species that we have in the greatest number and have the highest value. So we’re looking to start this out with half a dozen scallop fishermen, who want to belong to the co-op.

Q: What will a project like this do for the economic vitality of the county?
A: When all the sardine plants closed down, not only were jobs lost, but the whole body of knowledge of folks who just knew how to get things done was lost, too. I’m hopeful that as people grow their own businesses, gain more experience in being successful at producing a product and marketing a product, that eventually over time, we’ll get some of that knowledge back, some of our young people will stay and they will become the people who will make things work in Washington County.

Q: What’s your advice for anyone thinking of starting a project like this?
A: Take your time. You don’t know, there’s no way you can know from the beginning, everything you need to make it go. And be ready to be flexible and to shift. 

Challenges

  • Gap in availibility. In times of low membership and during busy fishing and farming months, it is likely that there wouldn’t be time for people to test new products in the kitchen.

Outcomes / Results

  • In 2015, the Marketplace sold Cobscook Bay scallops to 10 restaurants and specialty markets along the coast of Maine. They worked with over a dozen fishermen and farmers. They have a goal of doubling their efforts in 2016.
  • In the first quarter of 2015, the Cobscook Kitchen and Marketplace signed on as a partner in a USDA grant with Healthy Acadia to help process farm produce from Washington County and get it into packaging for school lunches.

Additional Resources

Gulf of Maine Research Institute's (GMRI) 'Out of the Blue' Program

Several organizations have begun efforts to increase consumer awareness and consumption of alternative fish species that have been undervalued due to lack of market demand and are now being caught in greater numbers due to changes in ocean temperature, climate, and salinity. However, fishermen get paid so little for these species, they can’t afford to pay their expenses to harvest them. For example, the average boat price for cape shark, or dogfish, in 2013 was $0.16/lb, while cod garnered $2.10/lb. Promoting these low-value species helps to create new markets and relieves pressure from more iconic stocks like haddock and cod.

Restaurants sell an estimated 70% of seafood consumed in the United States. With the help of fishermen and scientists, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) identifies species that are well-managed, under-harvested, and have a low market value, to introduce to consumers through a regular promotional series called Out of the Blue.

How It Works

GMRI’s restaurant, institution, and retail partners work together to make these low-value species available during 10-day promotion periods throughout the year. In exchange, GMRI does media outreach and communication to encourage people to go to their restaurants and try these products. These include sustainably harvested Acadian redfish, Atlantic mackerel, dogfish, whiting, and Atlantic pollock. By making them regular staples on a menu, consumers can expand their palate and increase their awareness of the local fishing industry.

 

Key Factors

  • Commitments from culinary partners. Restaurants and retail partners make a written agreement to have these featured species on their menus at all times during the promotion period, as well as educate their staff on seafood sustainability.
  • Communication between seafood suppliers and restraurants. GMRI is not responsible for buying and selling fish, so the success of the program is dependent on the communication between suppliers and restaurants and their ability to fulfill orders.   
  • Working with institutional and academic participants. Because they have much larger purchasing power, leveraging interest with corporations and universities can be helpful in expanding the awareness and consumption of these low-value species.           

Q & A with Jen Levin, GMRI Sustainable Seafood Program Manager  
                          

Q: How did this project get started?
A: This project is the brainchild of a steering committee that we formed at GMRI, which was in response to a grant we received through the Kennedy-Saltonstall program to promote underutilized and undervalued species from the Gulf of Maine. The committee identified five species and then fishermen figured out if they could actually harvest it and logistically if it made sense for them to market and sell it to their restaurants.

Q: How did you involve restaurants in the project?
A: For each of those five species, we had restaurants sign up to commit to having those on their menus at all times during a 10 day promotion period. In exchange, we did a lot of media outreach and communication to encourage people to go to their restaurants and try these products.

Q: What has the response been from consumers and program participants?
A: Since we started the program in 2012, response has been very positive and only getting better with each passing year. Typically, we’ve had about 20-30 participants during each Out of the Blue week. They were mostly restaurants, but we had Boston College and Colby College participate, as well as some markets. It’s been an ongoing struggle to get consumers on board with what they consider to be “trash fish”. We’re seeing those opinions change fairly quickly. Restaurants in particular were really excited to have a community of chefs who were all working together, to talk about how cool these products are and how palatable they are. Direct connection with fishermen was really appealing to them, too.

Q: Any new developments?
A: We got another grant through the Saltonstall-Kennedy program to build sashimi grade markets for local seafood. This will will create new supply chain connections, so that when fishermen do handle their product extremely well, there is a buyer there who is willing to pay for it. Because we’re working with hard quotas, fishermen need to make use of every single pound that they harvest and what better way to do that than really focus on the quality.

Q: What will be the telltale sign that these species have been integrated into the market?
A: A real sign of success will be when somebody can place an order for one of the species and its there because fishermen harvest it knowing that somebody would buy it and somebody bought it because they knew they’d have a customer for it. That’s how other seafood products work now. It’s building that trust to know there’s a consistent demand for these species.

Challenges

  • Satisfying small-scale demand. After GMRI tasting events, people want to know where they can buy a particular species, but often they are not available in grocery stores or fish markets because of the negligible consumer demand which leads to a lack of harvest. It will take continued effort to build interest before regularly featuring these species in restaurants, food service institutions, and supermarkets. 

Outcomes / Results

  • Since the program started, GMRI has worked with more than 20 restaurants through the Out of the Blue program.
  • Recently, GMRI been working with hospitality company Sodexo who’s made a commitment to source all of their whitefish that they serve in Maine from Gulf of Maine species by 2020 with 20% increases every year until then. This would replace Bering Sea and Alaskan cod and tilapia which will create volume and opportunity for local Gulf of Maine seafood.   

Additional Resources