Linda Bean’s idea of a Perfect Maine
By Craig Idlebrook
As the fog lifts off the morning waters of our working harbors, the horizon is expanded to reveal lobster boats … rocky shores … spruce ledges and islands. And the waterfront awakens as it has for generations of working families.
— Quotation from the home page of the Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Web site
The midcoast fishing community of St. George is used to having rich people around. Rusticators started showing up well over a century ago. The town’s population more than doubles every summer, to about 7,000, as wealthy families return to vacation homes in Port Clyde, Tenants Harbor, and other picturesque villages on this peninsula along Penobscot Bay.
“We’ve always had different ones coming and going,” said town manager John Falla. “People don’t treat them different than anyone else.”
There is an exception: Linda Lorraine Bean, granddaughter of L.L. Bean founder Leon Leonwood Bean and heiress to a sizeable chunk of the iconic Maine company’s fortune.
Bean and her second husband, Donald Folkers, bought a few properties in St. George in the ’90s, and she’s called Port Clyde home for most of the past decade. She discussed buying a neighbor’s lobster business many years ago, but nothing came of it at the time.
Having run two highly contentious, unsuccessful campaigns for Congress in 1988 and 1992, Bean seemed content to spend her 60s living a quiet life by the sea. The rogue Republican continued to bankroll conservative causes and candidates opposed to gay rights, women’s rights, and gun control, but otherwise she kept a low profile.
That all changed four years ago. Following her divorce from Folkers, Bean went on a buying spree. She’s since snapped up at least 17 properties in the town, including the general stores in Port Clyde and Tenants Harbor, and the beloved Dip Net restaurant beside the Port Clyde General Store.
It took the locals some time to get wise to what was happening, in part because Bean formed limited liability companies to purchase most of the properties. She also used infamous anti–gay rights crusader Paul Volle, former head of the Christian Coalition of Maine, as a frontman (or “straw,” as Bean put it) to conceal her involvement in hopes of negotiating better real estate deals.
“When people see me coming, they think big dollars,” Bean said in a phone interview with The Bollard. (Volle, whose conviction for shoplifting cassette tapes and batteries made headlines 20 years ago, is now retired and living in Ohio. He declined to discuss details of his dealings with Bean.)
Bean’s business practices have confounded and outraged a lot of people in St. George. For example, last winter she abruptly closed the kitchen of the Port Clyde General Store, where fishermen and older locals gathered regularly for hot meals, coffee and conversation. Over a dozen employees lost their jobs just weeks before the holidays.
Bean encouraged customers to buy hot food at her Tenants Harbor store instead, but many regulars boycotted both businesses.
“I used to go there every day, but I don’t go there anymore,” said Roger Libby of Port Clyde. “I don’t think there was any need to shut down and hurt the townspeople who worked there.”
Bean told The Working Waterfront that she closed the deli because it was losing money in the off season and was too expensive to heat. She noted that the 14 employees laid off as a result were all eligible for unemployment benefits.
While Bean was pinching pennies in Port Clyde, she was spending big bucks to start a chain of lobster roll restaurants called Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine. A Perfect Maine location opened in Delray Beach, Fla., the month before the deli in Port Clyde was walled off. Another one opened shortly thereafter on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port — and it’s been mostly empty of customers ever since.
In a 2009 profile for Down East, journalist Colin Woodard said Bean is building Maine’s “first vertically integrated lobster empire.” Bean owns and controls all the infrastructure needed to bring lobsters from the dock to the fork. She aspires to have her signature lobster stew and other products sold in supermarkets nationwide, and hopes her lobster roll franchise will stretch from coast to coast, and beyond — a Perfect Maine restaurant recently opened on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Bean uses the image of Maine’s fishing communities to market her company, but the reality of life in her Perfect Maine is far from perfect.
“It’s a divided peninsula: those on the payroll and those who aren’t,” a St. George resident said. Like numerous other locals interviewed for this article, she agreed to comment about Bean on condition of anonymity, for fear that criticizing her would bring economic retribution in this tiny town. The source has been asking St. George officials for help in a land dispute with Bean, but thinks the town government is powerless to rein in the heiress.
When I finished the interview and stepped out onto her front porch, I casually told the woman I’d see her around town. Her smile froze.
“You weren’t here,” she said as she closed the door.
Welcome to the small fishing villages of coastal Maine where every day has its own unpredictable character and emotional challenges, its wins and sudden losses, its joys & tears.
Bean’s decision to enter the lobster business came at a fortuitous time. The recession was hammering the industry, causing prices to fall and threatening the livelihood of many families in St. George.
“She’s helped out the lobstermen quite a bit,” said Justin Libby, a member of the fishing cooperative Port Clyde Fresh Catch, which organized last year to help fishermen process and sell their products. “They’re obviously sticking with her.”
Some may have no choice.
Bean bought the boat of one lobsterman who’d fallen on hard times, and allowed him to keep hauling traps on it. In return, he’d pledged to sell his catch exclusively at her wharves.
Justin Libby said it’s common for lobstermen to sell a few crates of crustaceans to competitors from time to time, and one day this lobsterman did just that: he sold some at the fishermen’s co-op. Bean promptly took the boat away from him. (Bean confirmed the details of this incident, but The Bollard was unable to identify the lobsterman by name.)
How did Bean know their deal had been broken? Turns out the rumor around town is true: Bean has the waterfront under video surveillance.
“I have surveillance on all lobster operations, and if it happens to include the co-op, what am I to do about that?” she said. “Without that ability, people can do whatever they want and your goodwill is violated.”
Bean’s not the only one around town feeling a lack of goodwill these days.
Scott Yakovenko ran the Dip Net for eight years, and many locals give him credit for resurrecting the establishment. Both the Dip Net and the adjacent Port Clyde General Store were “owned” by Volle, but residents’ suspicions were confirmed when Bean eventually stepped forward and took over the properties.
According to Yakovenko and his mother, Sandy, the restaurateur repeatedly asked Bean about the status of his lease, but could not get a definite answer. “She had been stringing Scott along,” Sandy Yakovenko said. Scott Yakovenko said Bean informed him shortly before his lease expired that it would not be renewed.
Bean said Yakovenko was not a model tenant. She accused him of improperly cleaning up grease and claims there were “days when he had a drinking problem. He couldn’t open his doors because he was unable to do business.” (Now the chef/owner of a seafood restaurant in Camden, Yakovenko declined to discuss other details of his interactions with Bean.)
Tamara Cody, co-owner of Port Clyde Kayak, said she’s had a similar struggle with the heiress, who also owns the building her business occupied.
“We’ve been asking for a lease for two years,” said Cody. As she was being interviewed, her father was dismantling the kayak shop, preparing to relocate the business due to the lease dispute.
Cody said Bean initially told her no lease was necessary. Then she was told to provide a copy of the lease she had with the building’s previous owner. Finally, Cody was given a choice: allow Bean to use some of the space the kayak shop was using or she would raise the rent.
Cody and her husband decided to move the shop instead. When Bean heard they were leaving, she visited them. “You’re not moving out because of me, are you?” Cody recalled Bean saying.
Bean contends that she and Cody had reached an agreement to share the shop space, but that Cody backed out of the deal.
John Boulware used the floor above the kayak shop as an office for the wholesale seafood business he owns next door, St. George Marine. He was also in the process of relocating as we spoke, setting up a new office above his seafood operation.
Boulware recounted several examples of erratic behavior by Bean. He said that one evening she showed up at his house on the pretext of wanting to watch the sunset, and then asked if she could buy his business. Boulware told her he wasn’t selling.
When he came into work the next day, Bean’s accountants were there to discuss terms. Boulware sent them away.
Boulware said Bean raised the monthly rent for his office space above the kayak shop from $800 to $2,100. He said he offered to pay the difference by providing Bean’s lobster operation with bait, but Bean didn’t like the quality of the bait and followed up with a letter from her lawyer reiterating the rent increase.
Boulware opted to walk away, too. “Down here, you get tired of that bullshit,” he said.
Of all the controversies Bean’s stirred up in St. George, the one that most puzzles the locals is about ice cream.
Jesse Christensen and her family own a building in Port Clyde that houses their business, Village Ice Cream. Bean expressed interest in buying the building, but the Christensens didn’t want to sell.
Shortly after that discussion, Bean began offering root beer floats at the Port Clyde General Store, using the word “village” in the dish’s name. Many considered this a blatant attempt to undercut Village Ice Cream.
“If somebody doesn’t give her her way, she tries to compete with it,” said Sandy Yakovenko. “You might be able to have something like that in Portland, but you can’t have two ice cream shops in Port Clyde.”
After numerous complaints, Bean changed the name of the float, but she maintains that the fuss was much ado about nothing. The term village “is a rather generic name,” she said.
Christensen has taken the flap in stride. She said she actually sold more root beer floats as a result. Still, in her opinion, no local could have gotten away with what Bean did without facing reprisals.
“If it were anyone else in Port Clyde, there would be things done to her,” Christensen said in a matter-of-fact tone, balancing her 2-year-old son on her knee.
Some have clearly benefited from Bean’s business in St. George — most of her properties there are residences occupied by Perfect Maine employees, who rent them from their boss — but other townspeople feel more bitterness than gratitude. A recent revaluation caused property taxes to increase substantially, and many believe Bean’s real estate binge was a big factor driving that tax hike.
An examination of town records shows that Bean appears to have grossly overpaid for at least two properties. One was valued at $280,000; Bean bought it for $795,000.
Falla, the town manager, said it’s unlikely Bean’s real estate deals are to blame, because tax assessors leave out the very highest sale prices when calibrating property values, considering those sales anomalies.
Boulware, who said the property tax on his seafood business doubled, isn’t convinced. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “When you buy that many properties?”
The people of St. George “feel they’ve been taken advantage of,” said Scott Yakovenko, “that she’s sold out their quaint little town.”
Bean dismisses this grousing as idle chit-chat. “You can create a lot of jobs or sustain a lot of jobs,” she said. “They don’t have enough to do except talk.”
Here you can come to know of our shared struggles, our underlying faith, and our joy when the fish catch is big and when new dreams are realized.
Bean got a chilly reception on nearby Vinalhaven when she bought a lobster wharf there in 2008 and took over the trucking business that serviced the island.
In an account published last year in The Cipher, a non-fiction collegiate magazine, writer Artie Niederhoffer described the tensions Bean caused in that community. Workers at the fishermen’s co-op on the island “resent that, thanks to her inheritance, she has been able to infiltrate (and take big risks in) an industry in which she has no stake,” she wrote.
“She came in here and tried to take over,” a co-op employee told Niederhoffer, who has family on Vinalhaven. “And that is not something, in a small town, that you try to do.”
Bean is certainly not thinking small. She cites chicken baron Frank Perdue as her role model in the lobster business. After only two years in the trade, Bean estimated she was buying 5 percent of Maine’s total lobster catch, “a striking amount given her newcomer status,” the New York Times noted last year.
Bean is storming into Maine’s lobster industry much the same way she entered state politics two decades ago: determined to make fundamental changes, with checkbook in hand.
She immediately picked a fight with the Canadian seafood businesses that handle over half of all the process-grade lobsters landed in Maine. Bean is incensed that these companies package and sell Maine lobster as a product of Canada (or, as worded on her Web site, “foreign Canadian lobsters masquerade as Maine lobsters”). The arch-conservative is further infuriated that Canadian processors get government subsidies to help them keep their costs down.
Bean’s anti-Canadian rhetoric has rattled people in the industry on both sides of the border. “We’ve always worked with the Canadians and they have always worked with us,” said Peter McAleney, a Portland lobster dealer who heads the Maine Import-Export Lobster Dealers’ Association. “They couldn’t believe what they were hearing.”
Last year, Bean converted a former scallop-processing facility in Rockland into a plant to process her lobsters. There are only a handful of facilities in the state that do this work on a large scale. The Rockland plant employs 50 people, according to the company.
The live lobsters Bean ships and sells in supermarkets wear bracelets on their claws indicating their port of origin: Port Clyde, Tenants Harbor, Vinalhaven. Bean believes the industry needs to make Maine lobster a brand as distinct and recognizable as Coca-Cola — a notion industry insiders like McAleney skoff at.
“She’s only been in the business three years and you’re telling me she’s got all the answers?” McAleney said to the Times last fall. “We’re already branded.”
(Another trademark Bean was reportedly seeking last year, Linda Bean’s Lobster Cuddlers — a less menacing reference to claw-meat — has not caught on.)
The other side of her lobsters’ tags says the creature was “Wild Caught in U.S.A. by Maine Fishermen Using Sustainable Practices.” Bean is a strong proponent of having Maine lobsters certified environmentally sustainable by a London-based group embraced by Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. Certification could cost the industry as much as $200,000 every year, and like the branding idea, many are skeptical of the benefit.
Residents of St. George are skeptical of Bean’s commitment to the lobster business. They’re worried about what will happen to their town if she pulls out as abruptly as she bought in.
Bean acknowledged that concern in her interview with The Bollard. She said she’s willing to pull the plug on a business venture if it’s not profitable, citing The Maine Paper — a conservative publication she founded, funded and folded in the early ’80s after a brief run — as an example.
“There is a history of my not making it,” Bean said. “As much as my heart may be in something, I can’t just pour money into it.”
Bean’s lobster empire may not conquer after all. Last year she announced her aim to have 100 Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine franchises in the U.S. by the end of 2010. With a couple months to go, she appears to be about 90 locations short of that goal — and that’s counting the lobstermobile and two seasonal stands in Freeport.
Bean recently bought a three-story building across from the L.L. Bean flagship store. She plans to make it a Perfect Maine pub that offers live music on the weekends.
Even in Freeport, that could be a tough sell. As the chronic emptiness of the Perfect Maine in Portland’s Old Port attests, there aren’t many people willing to spend $16 on a lobster sandwich these days.
And Cuddlers — out of the question.
In an imperfect world, many opportunities await just around the corner … dawn breaks expectant … the sun begins to shine warmly … and the sea sparkles seductively in Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine.