Sunday, March 31, 2013

Our First Trade Show

Last Sunday, David and I donned our Gurnet Trading apparel and headed to Portland for the New England Made Giftware and Specialty Food Show. It was a Sunday adventure to see what cool products we might be able to sell in the store and online. But the adventure started well before we arrived in Portland.

To get into the show, you have to prove that you are an authorized buyer and representative for your company. And you have to do so with not one, but two forms of business ID. What the hell is a business ID? As it turns out, the show would accept a corporate credit card, a pay stub, a business card, a tax ID number, or a business check. Gah! We are a legitimate small business, I promise you that. But I get paid on commission for my sales, so I don't really have access to that stuff.

Luckily, David and I both have Sam's Club business memberships through Gurnet Trading. One form of ID down, one to go.

Anyone with a printer and a local office supply store can create a business card. So that was our plan, we would print off some home grown business cards. Now I will tell you this, Gurnet Trading has never before had business cards. Why would they? If someone walks into the restaurant and asks for a phone number or contact information, we hand them a take-out menu. For ten years, the world has come to us; attending this trade show is our first step to taking Gurnet to the world.

Staples, the only office supply store within 30 miles, is a half hour drive and I hadn't made it a point to get to the other side of town. So, 8 am Sunday morning (the day of the show) I found myself driving across town on a mission for card stock. I opted to stop at Wal-Mart (5 minutes closer and 10x the hassle) in hopes of finding some cheaper card stock for last-minute-thrown-together-"business"-cards. Alas, they had card stock but it was for ink jet printers only and I have a laser print. I continued on my journey only to find that Staples wouldn't open for another two hours. Back to Walmart, I would have to take my chances with the inkjet cards. There is nothing quite like starting your morning off with two trips to the mecca that is Wal-Mart in rural Maine.

Slightly curled business cards and Sam's Club membership ID's in hand, we arrive at the show around noon. With little more than a cursory look at our business cards, we gained entry.

A lobster price display board by Big Impressionz of Biddeford, ME
Plastic Lobsters
Almost immediately we set eyes on awesomeness in the form of giant plastic lobsters. I want one. I'm not exactly sure what we will do with it, but we will figure it out. The company also makes a pretty sweet lobster price display board that is probably more practical and cost effective than an 8 foot lobster.

Moxie Jelly from Better Than Average in
Mechanic Falls, ME
Moxie Jelly
What? Moxie flavored jelly? That is crazy. Ok, so here's the back story for those of you that aren't from Maine. It is our Official State Soft Drink. Since when do states have an official soda? Anyway, it is made out of gentian root and is some pretty bitter stuff. It's like root beer with a kick in the pants and an after taste that keeps on giving. We love it. Well not me, personally. I can only stand the stuff when it's mixed with amaretto. But we, Mainers, drink the hell out of it and it is a source of cultural pride.

Better Than Average is a jam, jelly, and sauce company based in Mechanic Falls, ME and they have the goods. They have developed a Moxie flavored jelly. It has that distinctive Moxie flavor, while being slightly mellowed so that your toast doesn't grow legs and run away. I am a fan of this product for two reasons. One, it is unique. Two, it is distinctly Maine. What do you guys think? Do you think people out on the Left Coast getting a box of live lobsters and crab cakes delivered would want to add on a jar of Moxie jelly to get a little more of the Maine experience shipped to their door?

On another note about this small local company, they had a nice medium spiced Raspberry Jalapeno jelly that I think would be tasty with our crab cakes.

Chocolate Puffin
Chocolate Seafood from Safe Harbor Confections in
Waldoboro, ME
I am a fan of chocolate and a food expo is a great place to get some prime samples. While there were lots of chocolate concoctions, this one really caught my eye as being related to the products I sell. Safe Harbor Confections is a local chocolate company located in Waldoboro, ME who specializes in chocolate scenes. I'm interested in their Water Scenes, I think they would make a great value added product for people shipping our seafood, especially when they are shipping it as a gift.

They have fish, sailboats, lobsters, lighthouses. Even a puffin. Let me ask you this, how can you not love a chocolate puffin?

Jams and Jellies
I have decided that Mainers take their jams and jellies very seriously. It seemed like every other vendor was selling some sort of a jam. There were the classics like blueberry and strawberry, but there were also plenty to choose from that had habaneros, jalapenos, garlic, ginger, and more. Even with all the selection, I was a bit disappointed. I had attended the show hoping to spark some ideas, but also to find a nice chutney or sauce that would go well with some of our seafood (particularly the crab cakes). And what I found is that there were very few savory sauces to be had. Even the spicy jams were fairly sweet.

I am on the hunt for a locally made savory sauce that has a slight kick and a nice texture. Let me know if you know of something like that. Sure I could make one myself, but I'm in the seafood business and I want to focus on my fish and lobsters, not the extras. My hands are full enough without going into the jelly business, which already seems to be jam packed full. Sorry . . . that was bad. I just can't help myself.  

The most surprising thing about the show? How many vendors recognized our brand. David and I were sporting our shirts and got noticed. Wicked Joe, the Brunswick coffee roaster was there and chatted us up about our lobster rolls. Robinhood Meetinghouse, a delicious biscuit maker in Bath, recognized us immediately. And there were others that randomly approached us and commented on our food. That felt pretty good. We are just a small fish market and take-out but have gained the recognition of our peers in the Midcoast community.

Check in next week. Gurnet Trading is going to the Maine Restaurant and Lodging Expo. Hopefully we find some more good stuff. Oh and happy Easter!

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Cast of Characters

I have laid the back story, but before I get to far into this I should provide a brief introduction to the characters that will appear regularly throughout this blog.

Julie's cod was the largest
 catch that day (2012)
The Fish Queen - Julie
This is my mom. She is lord and master of all things Gurnet Trading. She is our tie to the sea. It is through her blood that we are linked to many generations of Harpswell fishermen. 

It has taken her many years to get where she is today and in the process she has done it all. She plucked chickens for a short time. Later she worked as an x-ray technician. She dallied as a welder building destroyers at Bath Iron Work. She was the proud owner and operator of a successful lawn care and landscaping business. She even held a 6 Passenger Captain's License for a few years. 

But that was all just practice. For the last fifteen years she has been the hand at the helm of a highly successful wholesale seafood business and for the last ten years she has commanded the retail seafood market and take-out restaurant, Gurnet Trading Co.

The Fish King - Brian
Brian with a 3 lb Lobster (2013)
We let him think he's in charge, but we all know who the real boss is. His real role is story teller. Give him the chance and he will tell you everything there is to know about our business and more. He will suck you in and tell you the tales of our past, how we got here and where we are going. 

Like my mom, it has taken my dad years to get here. As a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, he worked as the chief engineer on ocean going tugboats transporting grain from the US to South America. Later he was an engineer, building destroyers at Bath Iron Works.  

When the walls began to close in, he began diving for scallops and urchins and has never looked back. While my mom steers the business, my dad is the engineer. He keeps the lights on and the ship afloat. He is the operations manager, making repairs to the facilities and seeing to the day to day operations of the wholesale lobster business.

The Fish Prince - Zach
My younger brother was the obvious heir to the fishy throne. He knew from the start that he would not ever work a 9-5 desk job. He didn't even try to pretend to go down that route. In high school he enrolled in the culinary arts vocational program and apprenticed under my mother in the restaurant. After high school, he continued to work in the restaurant and also added Zach's Lobster Bakes to his repertoire. He has a custom built lobster cooker and travels all over the Mid-Coast area, catering weddings; reunions; and other events. 

But a couple years ago, he rejected the throne and made a move to create his own domain. When the convenience store less than a mile down the road came on to the market, he jumped and at 21 years old became the owner of Zach's Country Store.   

The Wizard and Dark Horse - David
If not otherwise identified, you should assume that David is the "we" in all of my posts. My husband is the grand schemer of this tale. He is the character that orchestrates events quietly behind scenes. He plants small seeds and waits for them to take root. He knows his wife is too stubborn and strong willed to easily accept change, and so he manipulates her gently and lets her come to the right conclusion on her own. 

David in the Turks and Caicos - 2012
David came to us from Miami, knowing only about southern lobsters and Florida game fish. He came to us with intentions of sailing as an engineer in the merchant service as my father had. But that all changed when he was introduced to the Fish Queen. Together, they schemed against me and my plans to work a "normal" job. Every few weeks a new plan was hatched and I would be forced to shut it down before the idea got too big. Wippy's Brew Pub was a recurring topic that always pushed the limits of my patience. 

But as time went on, some of the ideas weren't half bad and they began to sit well with me. David has announced his resignation as an engineer building war ships and will begin to take over aspects of my dad's marine services business. David will install and repair ramps, floats and moorings. He will work with my dad in the operations and maintenance of our businesses. 

Additionally, last summer he passed the Coast Guard exam that will allow him to take up to six paying passengers out on our boat. We are going to do sailing charters during the sailing season. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Royal Introduction: Ascension


Rebellion is a natural part of growing up and becoming an adult, but I dare say few children do so by becoming civil servants. And that is precisely what I did. I couldn't have made a more radical departure from self-employment than I did when I became an employee of the US Federal Government.

For close to five years I kept as far away from the family business as possible. Sure I would get the weekly call for some sort of tech support or I would occasionally stand in as a cashier when someone was sick; but mostly, I stayed away. Then, about a year ago, the business began to change; it began to grow and shift into other markets. The store began shipping larger volumes of product across the country.

About the same time as the business began to expand, my feet started getting itchy. I, too, was ready for a change. I was getting claustrophobic in my little cube. The weekends flew by and the weekdays dragged on. I felt like I was wishing my life away and for what? A paycheck?  A career? Thirty years doing the same thing, working with same people, and watching the world go by? Don't get me wrong, I like my job and I like the people with whom I work, but it scares me.

So, I sat on the sidelines and watched quietly as the family business expanded. I weighed my options and considered many very different opportunities ranging from becoming a sail bum living on my boat to taking a transfer to Singapore. For months I piled up the possibilities and played with the pros and cons, but then a few weeks ago it all came rushing up when a perfect storm of events forced me into making a decision.

1. I am facing furlough. In all likelihood, come the end of April, I will be losing one day of pay a week. Politicians are saying that the Sequester isn't really all that bad. If you believe that, go find a civil servant and ask them. I will be losing 25% of my paycheck, don't tell me that doesn't hurt. And that is just the impact on me personally, how it's going to impact my ability to do my job is still unknown.

2. All hiring has been frozen, so that transfer I mentioned was put on hold.

3. My husband decided he wanted to stay here and take over my dad's mooring business.

4. My mother was going to hire someone to help grow and build the already expanding lobster shipping business.

Over the course of three days I made the decision to quit my job and join Team Gurnet Trading once again. Why would I want to pour my heart, soul and the best years of my life into an organization that can arbitrarily slash my pay? It's not my fault that Congress can't play nice. It's not my fault that America think's I'm lazy and not worth my paycheck. For the last 4.5 years I have done my job and done it well, and what thanks do I get? Significant lost wages? Called bloated and wasteful? If the Government took that much money away from any other group of people, there would be an uproar, a rebellion. Instead the politicians in Congress were cheering when Sequestration was allowed to proceed.

I think not! I have done nothing wrong, yet I am the one being punished. If I lose pay it had damn well be because I have done a shitty job. And that, my friends, is why I am joining Team Gurnet. There my success or failure will be determined by my own strengths or inadequacies, not by the whims of some Talking Head.

This is the decision that brought me back to the sea, pushed me to answer her call and take my place as the rightful heir as the Fish Princess. So welcome aboard! We shall see where the wind takes us! 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Royal Introduction: Rebellion


In the lifetime of my memory, my parents have always been self-employed, and as such, I did not have a "typical" childhood. With my parents there was no Bring Your Kid to Work Day, it was Bring Your Kid to Work Summer and even then it was more like Put Your Kid to Work Summer.

My first paid job was as the Honorary Assistant Harbor Master. In Maine, the legal harvesting seasons for scallops and urchins are in the winter and so my father found himself as Harpswell's harbormaster for 10 summers. Harpswell sports 216 miles of coastline (more than any other town in Maine), dozens of harbors, and hundreds of boat moorings. As we cruised around town my dad would slowly nose the boat up next to the pink and yellow poly balls and I would lean out over the gunnel and check to see if it had a registration number. If it didn't have a number, I would slap a big red warning sticker on the ball, informing the owners that we would confiscate their mooring the next time we came through if it was still unregistered.

After my dad had moved into the lobster business, I learned how to haul a 90 pound crate out of the water without hurting my back or being pulled in myself (not that had never happened). I also learned how to cull and weigh lobsters, track fuel and bait costs, and write checks for fishermen.

By the time I was in high school my parents had decided to expand the wholesale lobster business into retail and my brother and I wound up as their primary source of labor. My brother learned to fry clams, while I learned to run the front of the store. My first responsibility was to to help customers navigate the waters of fresh seafood and live lobsters. But my duties did not end at being a cashier. No, I also learned how to do payroll, balance the books, train other cashiers, and served as tech support for programming and managing our cash register and other electronic devices.

My first year as dive club president (I'm in pink)
Working for my parents did not end upon graduating high school. I helped pay for my education by working in the store while home during vacations and some weekends. I also became incredibly valuable to my father once I received my scuba certification. Though my father was no longer the Harbor Master, he had retained many customers for whom he built, repaired and inspected moorings. With me certified, he could stay dry while I dropped into the water to do the in water inspections and repairs.

It wasn't until I graduated college that I vowed I would never be self-employed. I promised myself that I would get a nice stable job working for The Man. I would have health and dental insurance; paid holidays; regular hours; and, best of all, a boss to whom I have no familial obligations.

Don't get me wrong, my family is my top priority and because of the family business I walked out of college with a bang up education, no debt, and more work experience than most of my classmates and friends; but, I also learned some key lessons about being a business owner.

  1. Insurance is insanely expensive. 
  2. The work is never done. There is always more to do. The more you do for yourself the more you make, which makes hiring someone to do work for you difficult.  
  3. The conversation is always about work. I do not think I have ever had a conversation with my family that the topic has not turned to lobsters, scallops or some other part of the business. 
  4. Family is great. Working with family is not so great. My mother fired me at least three times in a single summer. I have quit and stormed out more times than I can count. 
  5. Weekends are lots of fun. Lobsters don't know what weekends are, nor do scallops or the self-employed. 
It was these lessons that drove me to rebel against my parents and go find most 9-5 job ever.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Royal Introduction: The Legacy

The Legacy

First of all, I cannot begin to describe and explain who I am without sharing with you the history of our royal family.

Go back seven generations on my mother's side and you will find fish in our blood. My grandfather was a fisherman, as was his father, and his before that. They all went to sea to pull their livelihood from the water onto the decks of their boats. They all braved the elements and risked their lives to support their families in the only true way. See, we come from a place where you are either a fisherman or a fisherman's wife. That's just the way it is. 

However, having fish in your blood is not enough to make you royalty. If that were the case, everyone in town would claim a title for themselves. No, it also takes a kingdom. 

More than 30 years ago my father married into our fishy blood. He came from away and courted a fisherman's daughter. He also courted her father, working as a deck hand on his boat and proving his worth. After they married they moved far away, forsaking family tradition. But before too long they found themselves back home. You always come back. When you have fish in your blood, the Sea sings to you. She calls you back home, like the sirens of old. You always return. That's just the way it is. 

My dad scalloping
Upon returning, my father joined the service of the sea as, first, as scallop diver and then later an urchin diver. My mother, too, joined the ranks; not as a fisherman but as a purveyor of the Sea's wares. Together, my parents built a kingdom forged on the foundation of our bloodline. 

At the height of Maine's urchin gold rush, my parent's were one of the largest buying stations in the state. She bought and sold thousands of pounds of the spiny echinoderms every day. She had a fleet of several dozen boats who brought to her their daily catch in exchange for fair prices and free soda and hot dogs. In those days, even for the most inexperienced, a day's labor would mean $1,000. 

But, like any boom, there is eventually a bust. For hundreds of years the sea has been treated like a limitless source of life and wealth. But, today, we know that not to be true. Anyone that says otherwise shall be decried a heretic. Those of us with fish in our blood, have seen the truth and bore witness to the collapse of our industries. My grandfather saw the end of the cod; my father, the urchin.

But the kingdom had already been built and as we watched the fall of one era we prepared for another. The urchin buying station was transformed into a lobster wharf and then, shortly thereafter, we expanded from wholesale to retail. We are tough; made of salt and wind, rock and ice. We stumble and we fall like any other, but we get back up and keep going or else you drown. That's just the way it is. 

To Be Continued . . .