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March 22, 2010 | last updated January 18, 2012 11:15 am

Cannery pro | Mike Cote of Look's Gourmet transforms a troubled seafood processor into a thriving specialty brand

Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Mike Cote, president and CEO of Look's Gourmet Food Co. Inc.

VIEW: Mike Cote of Look's Gourmet


Mike Cote feels lonely sometimes as the owner of the state's last surviving Down East seafood cannery.

Look's Gourmet Food earned that distinction in February after Bumble Bee Foods announced it would close its Prospect Harbor sardine cannery in April. But Cote's company, based in Whiting, is not only surviving, it's thriving seven years after he and his life partner, Cynthia, saved the former Look's Canning Co. from foreclosure.

Today, Look's top brand, Bar Harbor Foods, is on 27% of the supermarket shelves in the United States. Cote says his products, which include clam chowder, lobster bisque, clam juice and processed lobster meat, are also sold in Japan and Europe. Sales increased 28% in 2009 over 2008 and he projects Look's will double sales to more than $10 million by 2015. According to Information Resources Inc. data, Look's is the fastest growing seafood soup company in America.

Cote's recipe for creating a successful small business that employs 20 full-time workers is almost as basic as the natural ingredients the company uses for its soups and bisques.

"You don't have to be smarter than everyone. You just have to work harder than anyone else," Cote says. "That's been my M.O. my whole life. That's how I succeeded."

During a mild Monday afternoon in March, Look's Gourmet Food employee Doug Look was busy bottling Bar Harbor Foods Clam Juice in the cannery's sprawling 12,000-square-foot processing facility. According to Cote, Cook's Illustrated rated it the best clam juice in the country and a pantry essential.

"Doug, how long have you been here?" Cote asks.

"I'm going on 42 years," he replies, placing more bottles on a capping machine.

At the same time, Look's wife, Vicki, and Maureen Kelley of Lubec place tags around each bottle that direct customers to the firm's website for recipes before the bottles are packed 12 at a time for shipment. The facility can produce 18,000 bottles of clam juice a day which, along with Look's other products, eventually find their way onto supermarket shelves in Texas, California, New Jersey, Michigan and many other states including Maine thanks to the relationship Cote cultivated with distribution firm World Finer Foods in New Jersey.

Frank Muchel, president of World Finer Foods, says his company has served as Cote's distributor since 2006 and Cote's products have experienced a 25% to 40% growth rate nationwide. "The man is ethical, the man is moral, and one of the hardest working people I know," Muchel says.

Dressed in a denim shirt with the Bar Harbor Foods logo displayed on the left front pocket, Cote enjoys interacting with his workers, whom he says are an important asset. He says he and Cynthia went to great pains to bring in the right people for their production team. "You have to cultivate a crew," Cote says.

He understands that his workers have deep, personal connections to Washington County and appreciate their jobs in an area where good employment opportunities can be scarce. The Cotes' accomplishments are not lost on Harold Clossey, the executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Development Council. He believes the couple's efforts to revive a failing business and provide local people with full-time jobs represents real social capital.

"What they've done there is pretty incredible," Clossey says.

Down East roots

Cote says the decision to buy the 86-year-old former Look's cannery was fueled by his desire to start a new business after he spent 25 years working as a vice president of growth channels at Pepperidge Farms and also as vice president of sales and operations for Odwalla/Fresh Samantha.

When Odwalla was bought out by Coca-Cola Co., he and Cynthia, whom he refers to as his life and business partner, wanted to start a new business. They were driving to Canada for vacation in the summer of 2002 when Cote says he received a call from his broker telling him about the troubled Look's cannery.

An Auburn native, Cote says he was familiar with the cannery and its brands from his youth and his time Down East when he attended the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine in 1973.

The business had fallen on hard times and had four full-time workers when Cote bought it in April 2003. Cote says he knew he had great products harvested from the Gulf of Maine (the company purchases mahogany clams from nearby Jonesport) and, coupled with his own strong sales and marketing experience, the company could again be successful.

Look's "had many different products built into its portfolio," he says, another aspect that made purchasing the company attractive.

Cote says he and Cynthia invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to ramp up the manufacturing facility with new conveyor belts and a bottling machine, as well as new processing ovens. They sold the cannery's wharf to raise money and bring in additional investors.

"My first job within the first year was to reformulate everything so we could call ourselves all-natural," Cote says. None of the products contain artificial ingredients, MSG or trans fats.

He took what he calls a "top of stove" approach to make sure all of the ingredients in Look's products come from Down East Maine. And he redirected the company's marketing to emphasize its Bar Harbor brand of products to tap into the familiarity people around the world have with the resort town.

He also brought an environmental sensitivity to the operation, insisting that Look's packaging consists of biodegradable recycled board, vegetable-based ink and recycled metal cans.

Little by little, Cote says, he and Cynthia transformed the operation into a state-of-the-art seafood processing facility.

Today, the fruits of his labor hum all around him. Employee Robin Haschalk opens a door on one of the company's seven specialty ovens used to ensure food safety. Once the steam clears, 760 more silver cans of Bar Harbor Foods' Clam Chowder are ready to be labeled. Amazon.com lists a six-pack of the 15 oz. cans at $17.54.

"Tasting it is believing and when people taste it, they know it is an extraordinary product," Cote says. "I've been told our clam chowder is restaurant quality in a can."

The chowder will join the company's other products, including its traditional line of beans — soldier, yellow-eye and Jacob's cattle — and a new line of cooking fish stocks that debuted last year to nearly instant success in their journey to food retailers around the world.

"We're the only Indian pudding manufacturer in the U.S. and the only lobster meat packer in a shelf-stable format in the entire U.S.," says Cote of his diverse product portfolio.

All of Cote's 20 employees have health insurance and profit sharing that paid each of them about $1,000 for the last two years. He and Cynthia hold about 10 staff meetings a year to encourage employee input.

Cote says he travels frequently and attends no fewer than 25 trades show per year. Cynthia usually spends the bulk of her time each week running the business while he is away selling their products nationwide.

"It's perseverance," Cote says of Look's success, "and putting the shoe leather to the street and making those sales calls."

Michael Cote
Age: 55
Leadership icon: Yvon Chouinard of Lisbon, founder of Patagonia and author of "Let My People Go Surfing/The Education of a Reluctant Business"
Maine's biggest challenge: Keep the state's core industries — fisheries, lumber, potatoes — vital, competitive and quality differentiated in the world markets. Also, to keep our youth here to work in those industries.
Maine's biggest opportunity: Create and maintain a transportation and technology infrastructure statewide that supports existing businesses and attracts new companies
Best business advice: "You don't have to be smarter than everyone. You just have to work harder than anyone else."

Look's Gourmet Food Co. Inc.
1112 Cutler Road, Whiting
President/CEO: Michael Cote
Founded: 2003
Employees: 20 full-time
Services: Primary seafood processing/value-added processing
Annual revenue: $10 million by 2015
Contact: 259-3341
www.barharborfoods.com

Bob Cook, Mainebiz staff reporter, can be reached at bcook@mainebiz.biz.

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