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UMaine Today Magazine

Back to Pleasing Palates-]

Carl Johnson and Grindstone Neck of Maine
Carl Johnson of Grindstone Neck of Maine

Carl Johnson has devoted his life to food. The well-known executive chef on Mount Desert Island was overseeing the food service in four of Bar Harbor's hotels when a near-fatal car crash in 1995 changed his life.

Food saved it.

"It took me a very long time to get back to being able to function again," says Johnson, who sustained severe head injuries in the accident. "Then I got the opportunity to buy the Fisherman's Inn Restaurant. It was the smallest food service entity I'd ever worked in, but I was able to return to my food roots."

At the seaside establishment in Winter Harbor, Johnson got down to basics. He served dishes made with locally produced foods. He smoked his own seafood in order to achieve chef-quality standards an epicure-grade with the suppleness to offer more slices per pound.

Johnson learned the secrets of smoking seafood from a Maine man whose family had been perfecting the process for three generations.

"I've always been interested in the artisanal side of food," he says. "It's always been my love. I love creating."

In 2002, the enthusiasm of his restaurant patrons encouraged Johnson to launch his own smoked seafood business, Grindstone Neck of Maine. The Winter Harbor business in a former hardware store specializes in "handcrafted, gourmet smoked" salmon and other seafood that is either wild caught or organically raised. Sales are wholesale, retail and mail order.

Johnson started the business with longtime friend Roger Billings, who has since retired.

"We are all natural, using ingredients like wild blueberry honey as sweetener for our salmon. Even the wood chips used for smoking are FDA-certified, free of precipitive contamination," says Johnson.

With his decades of food experience, Johnson can discern subtle differences in smoked seafood at a glance. At the start of his company, what he needed most was help navigating the myriad of health and safety regulations concerning food production.

At the University of Maine, food scientist Al Bushway helped Johnson and Billings with their FDA-required Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Plan for food safety.

"He knows where to go for answers, he speaks English (instead of scientific jargon) and is accessible by e-mail and phone," says Johnson. "A lot of people with his stature in the industry have others do it."

Not only is the smoked seafood industry highly competitive, it is one of the most FDA-regulated food products, second only to canned fish, Johnson says. But the attention to detail is in keeping with the philosophy of Grindstone Neck of Maine.

"We're perfectionists in what we do," says Johnson. "Our artisanal process is not conducive to high volume. Yet we're able to successfully compete in the highly competitive and leveraged marketplace against companies owned by multinational corporations."

Grindstone Neck takes pride in the care that goes into sourcing its seafood, whether wild salmon caught by Native American fisherman in Alaska or organically grown Atlantic salmon from Scotland. Its handmade pine gift boxes come from the Nezinscot Guild in Turner, Maine. A portion of the company's profits is donated to children's charities.

"We're a family-run organization and not some corporate moguls squeezing as much profit as we can out of the market," Johnson says. "We're making a product here that's safe, healthy and wholesome.

"Grindstone is a reaction to the sterilization and mass production of non-nutritious food. We're part of the local, high-quality food production of America, taking trends back to where they were in the '50s, when food was real. Real food done well."

For all the good intentions, Johnson admits that starting a new business isn't easy.

"It's been frustrating wondering when things are going to break (for the business), but now we've reached that point. Our enthusiasm is greater than when we began because we see the potential. And there's more opportunity for the university to help us chart our future."


UMaine Today Magazine
Department of University Relations
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Phone: (207) 581-3744 | Fax: (207) 581-3776

The University of Maine
, Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System