PORTLAND, Maine – Macaroni and cheese and pot pies may conjure up images of grandma's kitchen. But those traditional dishes these days are being combined with the king of seafood and transformed into value-added lobster dishes that some are calling gourmet comfort food.
A varied selection of prepared frozen products, such as lobster macaroni and cheese, lobster pot pie and lobster pizza, are making their way to grocery store freezers aimed at mainstream consumers — not just the white tablecloth crowd.
The creations are targeted at lobster lovers and foodies who don't want to deal with a live product and want the ease and convenience of simply taking something out of the freezer and popping it into the oven.
The first time Maine Lobster Council Executive Director Dane Somers heard about frozen lobster macaroni and cheese, he didn't think it was the smartest idea because many people associated the dish with the 99-cent boxed variety. He's changed his mind now.
"It appeals to folks because it's a familiar form," Somers said. "It's kind of exotic, but familiar at the same time so people can relate to it."
Maine accounts for more than 80 percent of the U.S. lobster catch, with last year's harvest reaching a record 93 million pounds.
Inside grocery stores, lobsters traditionally have been sold live out of circulating-water tanks placed near seafood departments. Some stores sell frozen lobster tails or lobster meat, but the value-added products were slim pickings.
In Maine, Calendar Islands Maine Lobster Co. launched its line of eight frozen lobster products in January. The products are now sold in more than 100 grocery and specialty food stores, mostly in New England but also in the St. Louis area and in Hawaii.
The top seller is lobster macaroni and cheese, followed by lobster pizza and lobster pot pie.
Restaurants have been selling fancy lobster dishes for a number of years, and Calendar Islands is trying to replicate the dining-out experience with in-home products, said John Jordan, president of the Portland-based company. The new creations are less expensive than they would be in a restaurant (and less than the company's website prices), but they're not cheap — the pizza sells for about $19 in grocery stores, the lobster pot pie for about $13 and the macaroni and cheese for about $10.
"The whole category of value-added lobster was kind of slim. You just didn't find it in supermarkets," Jordan said. "In some ways, this is really a new category for stores."
Cal Hancock started her Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. 11 years ago after living in the Midwest, where people told her they liked lobster but didn't want the hassle of getting them shipped in the mail and having to throw them in boiling water to cook them. When she moved back to her native Maine, she started a mail-order business on the premise of making lobster products that are easy to fix.
Nowadays, many of her products are sold at hundreds of specialty food stores as far away as California. Her frozen lobster macaroni and cheese, lobster risotto and lobster corn chowder are sold at a small number of Hannaford supermarkets in Maine.
She even sells a frozen "Maine shore dinner" with two lobster tails, mussels, shrimp, scallops and two ears of corn in a thick, heavy foil bag that goes from the freezer to the oven or an outdoor grill. "You can live in New York City in an apartment and have a lobster bake," she said.
Her best seller is the lobster mac 'n cheese, which she launched three years ago, followed by lobster pot pie and lobster flatbread.
"I think people like the familiarity," she said. "You can come up with something different like my lobster wellington, but it's not as familiar as the other things."
Linda Bean introduced her line of frozen value-added lobster products in March and is selling frozen, packaged lobster claws at hundreds of Wal-Mart stores, she said. Her company, Linda Bean's Perfect Maine, also sells frozen lobster ravioli and has plans to expand its frozen line of products.
With the lobster catch at an all-time high, it's important to develop value-added products so there's a market for the high volume of crustaceans that are trapped off Maine's rocky coast, she said. Maine's lobster harvest has grown from under 40 million pounds to more than 90 million pounds in the past 15 years.
"We are not aiming for the luxury market. We're aiming for the mass market," Bean said. "The future is making it easy for people to eat lobster."