Two brothers are selling more than just lobsters from their waterfront business. They're selling the lobstering experience — and it doesn't come cheap.
For $2,995 a year, customers buy the rights to all the lobsters caught in a designated trap off the rocky Maine coast — at least 40 crustaceans a season, probably more — and have them shipped whenever and wherever they want.
It's a concept similar to farming co-ops where people lay down money up front in return for a share of a farm's harvest during the growing season. John and Brendan Ready's customers know who's putting food on the table. Customers know the lobstermen, what their boats look like and where the traps are set. Daily updates are available on the Internet.
The Readys, owners of Ready Seafood on Hobson's Wharf, are selling the mystique of lobstering, where seasoned salts in foul-weather gear haul in lobsters from the ocean depths much the same way it's been done for more than a century. Lobstermen who work with the Readys benefit by getting free traps and a premium of 40 cents per pound for the lobsters caught in them.
Markets for the "Catch a Piece of Maine" program include businesses and well-heeled individuals with an interest in knowing where their food comes from.
"We've created a way to add more value to seafood," said John Ready. "This is our way of trying to hit a new market segment."
While it's relatively easy for people to meet farmers at farmers markets or co-ops, it's not as easy to meet the fishermen who supply the nation's seafood. So the Readys let their customers "meet" their lobstermen online, reading their biographies, looking at their boats and discovering their thoughts about their livelihoods.
One of those lobstermen, John Butler, writes that lobstering is a way of life for him. "Where else can you see majestic whales, jumping bluefin tuna, seals and countless sea birds when you go to work? Fog, salt air, waves crashing over the bow, sea spray in your face," wrote Butler, skipper of the Sylena B.
That connection is important for consumers who want to know more about their food, said Dane Somer, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council.
"There's a person behind it, saying 'Yes, I'm harvesting these lobsters and doing it in a sustainable way, and here's where it comes from,'" Somer said.
Lobster is synonymous with Maine, where last year's harvest of 73 million pounds was valued at nearly $300 million. The catch in recent years is double and even triple what it was in decades past, forcing lobster dealers to find new markets for all that product.
The Readys learned about lobstering at a young age and were pulling their own traps from a 16-foot skiff before they were out of elementary school. After graduating college in 2004, they started Ready Seafood together.
The brothers, who are 27 and 25, continued lobstering while building up a wholesale business buying lobsters from other fishermen and selling to restaurant and retail accounts nationwide. They launched "Catch A Piece of Maine" in October.
For the program, the brothers are selling the catches from 400 traps — 50 traps each from eight lobstermen, including the Readys themselves, in the Portland area.
During the May-December season, customers are guaranteed at least 40 lobsters from each trap. But the Readys expect the catch to be closer to 50 lobsters.
If a customer receives 50 lobsters, that would add up to $60 per lobster. Each shipment also includes clams, mussels, a Maine-made dessert, bibs, cooking instructions and a gift card, plus free shipping.
So far, the Readys have sold the rights to about 30 traps. Their customers include financial institutions, CEOs of small companies and a few individuals. About a third are from Maine with the rest scattered about, as far away as California.
Todd Colpitts, senior vice president at Atlantic National Trust in Portland, bought a trap so he can give away lobsters to clients and potential customers. Besides giving lobsters as gifts, he figures he'll have a great story to tell about the lobsterman who caught them and how the catch can be tracked on the Internet.
"It's such a unique idea. If you have a customer or somebody you'd like to do business with, you can send a bottle of wine and that's nice, but there's not much to talk about afterward," he said.
Bryson Voirin, who runs an outdoors adventure company based in Florida, signed up after visiting Portland on vacation and going out on a lobster boat. He liked the idea of supporting lobstermen and sustainable fishing practices, and he plans to send his catch to family members and his clients.
"Sending a lobster gift basket for Christmas to my best clients is a great way to remind them of my appreciation for their business," Voirin said. "They not only get the lobsters, but also the experience I had on my trip to Maine of (a lobsterman's) way of life."
Some are skeptical about what the Readys are doing, saying "Nobody's going to pay that much" or "Who would want to do this?" Somer said.
But he thinks it'll succeed.
"It's something no one else is doing," Somer said. "They are the pioneers."