Soup company cooking in Presque Isle
A new business is growing in Presque Isle, thanks to the Maine lobster. In the seven years since the LeBlancs have owned Winnie's along the edge of the airport, the restaurant has featured a lobster stew. Over time, the recipe has been improved here and there (no mentioning ingredients - they're a secret).
"When we bought Winnie's in 1988 a lobster bisque was on the menu," recalls owner Patty LeBlanc. "It was thick, with no lobster meatůso we decided to add lots of lobster and work on the flavoring."
A customer from out West asked LeBlanc two years ago if she had ever thought of marketing the now-improved stew. That started the ball rolling for the Presque Isle Soup Company.
In March, LeBlanc's lobster stew will be a featured Maine product at the Northern New England Products Show in Portland. In Phase 1 of her Plan, other soups will be added: cream of broccoli and Maine Moose Stew (meat is beef, however).
"As a cottage industry employing 10 people or less we can operate as we are now at the Winnie's location," notes LeBlanc. But her heart is into grow a business that will become an area strength. She's looking at locating in the Skyway Industrial Park and employing dozens of area residents to produce a whole line of fresh frozen soups.
To get her product ready for market, LeBlanc is currently concentrating on its packaging. She's playing with containers, packaging, labeling and research into the marketplace. Sue Hook of Hook Studios in Caribou has helped with the initial design and labeling, but LeBlanc would ideally like to avoid the cost of the dairy-style container packaging that could drive up the overhead of a larger business.
"How does the consumer want it?" asks LeBlanc. Frozen in a container for microwave use would be ideal. She wants her customers to be able to have the gourmet soups in the most practical packaging, and manufactured at the utmost efficiency too so that she can maintain a good price point.
For overall packaging and shipment of current orders (the airport's proximity makes that easy), she puts the soup containers in a small wooden lobster trap replica make by the Opportunity Training Center.
"I've contracted for 100 crates, but hope to run out," she says. "The quart of frozen stew is $25 in the trap box without shipping cost. Each stew package also guarantees 25 percent lobster meat. A quart without the gift pack is $18, and $8.50 for the pint."
LeBlanc brings a strong public relations background to her proposed business, and she looks forward to 'going on the road' to market it. A native of Mapleton, she studied at the University of Maine in Presque Isle, and raised two daughters , Tammy, a teacher of special education in Easton and Tracy, a computer teacher for grades 1-6 now on leave. In the 1970's, she was the executive director of the Presque Isle Chamber of Commerce. Then, for 10 years, she was the director of United Way in Aroostook County.
She is a people person, and her husband Gerald, she says, "is the one who really does all the work." Someone needs to keep all the restaurant equipment running, she notes, like the refrigeration and fryer setups, and all the maintenance detail. But for the soup company, she'd hire a plant manager with the right expertise to do quality mass production.
For now, the lobster stew is made in a 'production lineup' at Winnie's on the weekend. Twice each week, LeBlanc gets shipments of lobster, clams, scallops and fish from the coast. She offers the stew for takeout, and as well for restaurants.
At the March products show she'll be looking to get the product in as many gourmet food shops as possible.
"Success?" quips LeBlanc. "The more people we can put to work in Aroostook County, the better it will be...we'll do it!"
In the meantime, she is not missing any opportunity for local market development. Last month she hosted a private group, a coach tour going from North Carolina to Montreal. The tour's only stop in Maine was in Presque Isle. The overnight stay was at the Northeastland, and a request for a 'good local place for seafood' brought the Winnie's recommendation.
"We gave each of the 27 a gift pack of Maine Potatoes, their new cookbook and a snowmobile map," she adds.
"We closed Winnie's down for the night and hosted a real party. Lou Christie entertained with old tales of the Presque Isle area and Spud and Rotor presented their colorful songs."
LeBlanc put together the special evening with only two days notice. That's how prepared she is to handle what market opportunities may be coming up both in County and at the trade show.
"Who would have thought there's be a Presque Isle soup company!" she laughs.