Patty LeBlanc is the kind of person who says, “When they say it can’t be done, you look for a way to do it.”
It was that attitude that enabled LeBlanc and her husband Gerald LeBlanc to turn a seasonal dairy bar in Presque Isle into a thriving online business selling — of all things — lobster stew.
“They said you couldn’t freeze lobster stew,” the now retired businesswoman recalled this week, reflecting on a business that was way ahead of the times in the 1990s. But she worked with a professor at the University of Maine in Orono and a consultant in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to develop a cold pack product that could be shipped to corporate and individual customers throughout and beyond the U.S.
When the LeBlancs purchased Winnie’s Restaurant and Dairy Bar on Parsons Street in the mid-1980s, it was a walk-up restaurant open from May to September. Owned by Betty and Jeanette Buzzell, cousins of the previous owner for whom it was named, it had evolved from a doughnut shop into a restaurant specializing in hot dogs, hamburgers, homemade fries, ice cream and a line of seafood.
When the Buzzells asked if she would like to buy Winnie’s, LeBlanc was hesitant. She had a full-time job as director of the United Way, but she liked to indulge her passion for cooking by catering.
“I had never owned a business before. We had two daughters in high school. But once a seed’s planted, your mind runs with it,” she said. She discussed it with her husband. They returned together to talk with the restaurant owners.
“Hmm, this might be fun,” they concluded. “We took everything we had — life insurance, home — We put everything on the line. It makes you want to work.”
Ten years later, the business was successful and operating year-round. They added something new every year, including indoor and outdoor seating and catering services for local business meetings and events.
But things began to slow down in the 1990s. Loring Air Force Base closed in 1994, drawing both businesses and clientele away from Aroostook County. The Aroostook Centre Mall opened. Franchises such as Pizza Hut, Arby’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken began to line Presque Isle’s main street.
Nonetheless, the restaurant’s lobster stew had become a signature item. A businessman associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers football team discovered Winnie’s on his way from the Presque Isle airport, where he landed his jet, to Canada, where he liked to fish. He became a regular customer, ordering gallons of stew to serve guests in his box at Steelers games.
“We began getting calls after that,” Patty said, and the idea for a new mail-order business — LeBlanc’s Gourmet Lobster Stew — was born.
The LeBlancs credit former governor Angus King with the inspiration to venture into online marketing. An advocate for both small businesses and computers, he encouraged the LeBlancs to take their product to the New England Products Trade Show at the Portland Expo in 1996.
“It was huge for a little country girl like me,” Patty LeBlanc said. “All the buyers and magazines were there. We were inundated with calls and requests for lobster stew. It just mushroomed.”
Their stew caught the attention of the QVC television home shopping network at the trade show, and they were invited to compete with 500 businesses for a chance to be featured on the air. Ten businesses would be chosen to appear on the television show.
“Once again, we went — this little business from Aroostook County — we set up our display, this time in Bangor, and we were chosen as one of the top 10.”
Patty LeBlanc’s time on the air was short. As she talked about the stew and how it was made in northern Maine, orders poured in. The supply — 3,800 pints — sold out in three minutes.
Then the work began. It took 18 months to develop all the components needed to sell their products on the internet.
They created a web site, produced brochures and other marketing materials, ordered containers and labels, earned FDA certification for safe handling of seafood, and obtained a certificate of registration for their trademark: “LeBlanc’s Microstewery, Get stewed with us.”
Committed to supporting Maine businesses, they bought milk, cream and butter from Houlton Farms and lobsters from Maine Shellfish in Ellsworth.
They leased a building in the Presque Isle industrial park and hand-packed the stew in pint and quart containers. Between the restaurant and the new business, they kept 30 employees working day and night.
Patty LeBlanc said when she and her husband bought the restaurant, “He was the owner and I was the paid employee. When we started the lobster stew business, I was the owner and he was the paid employee.” Gerald made the stew and oversaw the packing, while Patty concentrated on marketing.
Customers included Williams Sonoma, the kitchenware and home furnishings retailer, and Harry & David specialty gift foods, as well as individual customers, who received the products via Federal Express and United Parcel Service. Gov. King served LeBlanc’s stew at official functions and even sent it as a gift to Chelsea Clinton for her 18th birthday. (Her thank-you note hangs on the wall of Patty Leblanc’s home office.)
By 1998, sales for one month reached $100,000. UPS had to add staff to accommodate the orders. Trans World Airlines gave the stew for corporate gifts and bought 450 quarts a month to serve on international flights.
LeBlanc’s Gourmet Lobster Stew was featured in hundreds articles in national publications, such as Taste of Home, Bon Appetit, and Food and Wine magazines. “Once the articles are out there, people read and call,” Patty LeBlanc said. People still call, even though the online business was sold to Hancock Lobster Co. in Topsham in 2002.
When Cal Hancock first approached Patty LeBlanc at a Small Business Administration conference for women in Augusta to inquire about buying the business, she said “absolutely not.” But when Hancock called again about a year later, the LeBlancs had thought it over. Costs were rising along with the demand for the product.
“We would have had to build a new, automated plant to keep up,” she said. “The business had outgrown us.” She said 90 percent of the customers were on the internet and the price was considered steep: $22.99 a quart or $11.50 a pint. Today the lobster stew is sold by Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. for around $60 a quart.
Winnie’s Restaurant and Dairy Bar also was sold in 2001. It has had four owners since then and is now closed.
Paging through thick binders of entrepreneurship awards, magazine and newspaper articles, correspondence with customers, and all the documents associated with the online lobster business, Patty LeBlanc says, “It was a really, really fun project.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.