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Sarah and Karl Sutton started Bite Into Maine at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth in 2011 with a single food truck, which the married couple recently replaced. Today, with 40 employees, the business still has a truck atop a hill at Fort Williams along with a takeout place in Scarborough, a food truck at Allagash Brewing in Portland, and a new food-prep facility on Diamond Street in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood with seating for 40 customers.
Mainebiz: How did two former Midwesterners come to start a lobster business?
Sarah Sutton: Once in Maine, lobster rolls immediately became our favorite way to eat fresh lobster. We had an entrepreneurial itch that needed to be scratched and thought there might be an opportunity to provide some variations along with the traditional styles. We were interested in opening a food truck, but Portland was still in the early stages of discussing this business model and permitting for it. When the Town of Cape Elizabeth opened up applications for food vending permits in 2011, we pivoted, applied, and were thrilled to be chosen.
MB: When you launched your truck at Fort Williams Park, how did the first few years go?
SS: That was a reality check. The first few years were fun, hard, and we had a huge learning curve. Thank god for the locals, they supported us until we were able to establish ourselves in our location at the top of the hill.
MB: How did you finance your startup costs?
Karl Sutton: In 2011, after yet another failed loan application, the loan officer looked at me and suggested we seek out the three F’s for financing. The three F’s? I hadn’t heard of this. He explained: Friends, Family and Fools. It was pretty clear we had to figure it out on our own. After maxing out our credit cards, liquidating 401ks and borrowing $4,000 from Sarah’s father, we were up and kinda running.
MB: How long before the brand took off?
SS: It felt more like a build than a take-off. We did notice that after the first couple of years customers were coming to us as a destination instead of just happening upon us. Social media was just taking off in 2011 and it allowed people to share their experiences with a reach that wasn’t possible before. We benefited greatly from this kind of authentic online word of mouth.
MB: What’s been your growth and expansion strategy?
KS: Start small and learn. Partner with other great Maine brands and people in locations that could support and sustain our business model. The adage “more businesses die from indigestion than starvation” is one we’ve unfortunately witnessed firsthand. I think we’ve built something special in the Portland area, and the question for us moving forward is whether we expand from there or not.
MB: How are things going in East Bayside so far?
SS: We love East Bayside! We’ve been looking for our “forever home” for years. This was by far and away the best location we looked at – great businesses, great people, great scene. It’s funny, we had looked at East Bayside a number of years earlier and it was a pass. Things have changed quite a bit since then. It checks a number of boxes: prep, servicing for our mobile units, indoor seating and an outdoor deck, which is exciting for us.
MB: How do you stay competitive when it’s the lobster suppliers who set the prices?
KS: You have to move with the market. Customers, I think to a degree, understand and appreciate the limited resource that lobster is and how volatile pricing can be, which is why “market price” is commonly quoted, although we do list a price. Our job is to deliver on the promise of experiencing one of Maine’s best lobster rolls, regardless of relative market pricing.
MB: What’s it like working with your spouse, especially in a small mobile kitchen?
KS: I wouldn’t have it any other way. In the beginning, it was a little bit like us versus the world. To be clear, it wasn’t easy, but I can’t imagine us not being side by side when we started in 2011. Today, we don’t work the locations together, but still manage to spend a ridiculous amount of time with each other, and like it.
MB: What’s next for Bite Into Maine, in coming months and longer term?
SS: Short term, we’re very focused and very excited to open the Diamond Street location and expand our catering business. Longer term is a big question. Karl and I feel incredibly proud about the team and business we’ve built to this point. To expand beyond the greater Portland area, we would need to partner with others. It’s something we’re considering, but haven’t fully begun to explore.
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