On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1980, Cozy Harbor Seafood opened in Portland, Maine. It turned out to be lucky for lobster lovers everywhere. The company is behind many of the processing advances that helped the industry evolve beyond live product and now allows consumers, chefs, and retailers to enjoy delicious Maine Lobster any time of year. This year, Cozy Harbor is celebrating its 40th year of operation.
Over the course of his career, Cozy Harbor co-founder John Norton has been involved in every level of lobster harvesting and processing. Although he started out as a commercial fisherman on Maine’s trademark dayboats, Norton and his lifelong friend and Cozy Harbor co-founder, Joe Donovan, saw the opportunity that existed to build beyond live lobster sales: offering Maine Lobster to new markets around the country and during the off-season.
“There were a lot of opportunities on the shoreside to be bringing Maine seafood to the hinterlands – in terms of processed or live product,” says Norton.
The two men got off their boats and onto the wharfs, talking with local fishermen to find the best catch of the day, which they then shipped to wholesalers across the country. Norton’s eye for innovation and market opportunities has since enabled Cozy Harbor to process more lobster than all other U.S. lobster processors combined – in excess of 100,000,000 lbs.
“I am thankful to a pioneer like John Norton, who has paved the way for development in this industry,” says Hugh Reynolds, owner of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, Maine.
In the early 1990s, most of the lobster caught in the United States was sold live. Lobster processing, where it existed, was dominated by two primary products: canned and frozen lobster from Canada, and frozen lobster tails from Australia and South Africa. However, in 1993 Maine experienced a record-high lobster catch, and all that changed. Fishermen were hauling more lobster than the live market could absorb, and Norton saw another opportunity.
Improving upon the freezing and packing techniques of existing processors with innovations like vacuum sealing to replace canning, Norton was able to get a higher quality processed product in front of consumers. Because the lobster was being caught and processed at Cozy Harbor’s facility in Portland, consumers were getting lobster at the same level of freshness one finds in live lobster straight off the dock.
For the past 40 years, Cozy Harbor has continued to develop new ways to ensure people across the globe can enjoy the taste of Maine Lobster as though they were right there on the Maine’s rocky coast.
Building on their vacuum sealing innovations, Cozy Harbor transitioned away from the traditional cooking practice of boiling lobster for processing in favor of steam. While boiling works great at home, cooking lobster this way in such large quantities resulted in inconsistent product, with some meat being undercooked, and some being overcooked. The company was also the first to use liquid nitrogen to freeze lobster. A process Norton says is “generations ahead.”
“It really maintains the fresh flavor and texture of a fresh-caught lobster because it freezes so quickly,” he says.
Norton continues to look for the next leap forward in lobster processing. Most recently, he is excited by the high-quality consumer products Cozy Harbor has been distributing by combining nitrogen freezing with vacuum sealing in vacuum skin packs. Vacuum skin packs contour to the lobster meat, producing a unique presentation that really speaks to consumers. With these innovations, Cozy Harbor’s line of retail packaged lobster tails and lobster meat won the 2017 Brussels Seafood Excellence Competition’s Grand Prize for Best Retail Product and Special Award for Best Product Line. “We’re seeing tremendous consumer excitement that’s really driving sales,” says Norton.
Maine Lobster is celebrated all over the world as one of the most delicious, tender seafoods on the market. Norton’s 40 years of commitment to innovation in the industry has allowed Maine’s iconic dish to be enjoyed globally, year-round.