First published in, Landings, August 2017
The first thing you notice when you meet Albert Carver, 58, coowner, with his partner Patrick Robinson, and president of A.C. Inc. on Beals Island, is the color of the company T-shirt he is wearing. The shade is a nearly fluorescent green, the color of a glow-stick at night. “I decided we would have a noticeable color,” Carver said with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s on the trucks, on everything.” One might be surprised that a seafood processing company in the depths of Downeast Maine would feature such a flamboyant hue, but then, many things about A.C. Inc. are surprising.’
The company started when Albert’s grandfather, Oscar, began buying clams from local clammers and shucking them in the basement of his general store on Perio Point on the island. In 1953, Oscar’s son Richard returned home from college to help run the store with his father. By the end of the decade, the Carvers had opened a new general store on Beals Island and were shucking even more clams in the old Perio Point building.
Business was good. The general store was now selling heating oil, clothing, gasoline, whatever the local residents needed. Carver remembers as a child going with his father in the store truck to make deliveries throughout the area. “We would deliver at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., before the noon meal and supper. There weren’t many cars on the island then [the Beals Island bridge was built in 1958]. People would call their orders in, we would put the items in a box on the back of the pickup truck and then you would carry it on your shoulder to deliver to the person,” he said. Most of the kitchen stoves in the area at the time were fueled with kerosene. People would leave their red 5-gallon kerosene containers by the side of the road when empty. Richard Carver bought a fuel truck and drove a route to fill the cans on a regular basis.
Oscar died abruptly in 1974 at age 62. Richard suddenly was in charge of all the family’s business ventures. Albert was a sophomore in high school, and his older brother Walter was attending the University of Maine in Orono. After graduating, Walter came back to the island and took over the family’s fuel business, known then as Carver Oil, now Carver Heating. After high school Albert went off to the University of Maine in 1978… briefly. “I lasted a few days,” he admitted. “My parents really wanted me to go to college so it took me about four weeks to tell them I was through. I told my mother first and then my father. He said, ‘We start at 5 a.m. at Perio Point [the shellfish business] and 7 a.m. at the store. Where’s your ass going to be tomorrow?’ I went to Perio Point.” Albert and his father have worked together at Carver Shellfish for nearly forty years. Richard still comes into the plant twice a day.
“It has been an amazing adventure working with my dad. It hasn’t been easy, but he’s let me make my mistakes so I would learn a lesson,” Carver said. His father has a favorite phrase he uses with his son: “If I was you … but you need to do as you see fit.” That freedom has allowed Carver to explore different ventures, some of which have worked, several of which have not. “I’ve found that when I disregard his advice it often costs me money,” Carver laughed. “But he’s always been 110% supportive.”
When you read the pages on A.C. Inc.’s Web site, you immediately notice the frequent references to family. In Carver’s mind, the notion of family takes in not just his biological relatives but anyone who is currently working for the company or has in the past.
“I can’t do justice to the employees,” Carver said, removing his cap and rubbing his head for emphasis. “I can’t describe it. They are family. They are so important to us, to each other and to this community. If they weren’t here, A.C. Inc. wouldn’t be here. And many have been here a long time.” One woman who works shucking clams started at the old Perio Point building about the same time Albert began working for his father. “You can’t get too big when you’ve got someone who’s known you forever,” he said.
A.C. Inc. plays an important role in the economy of Jonesport and Beals Island. “We have 36 full-time people and 12 working seasonally,” Carver said. The area has always been dependent on fishing and on boat building. But those jobs were often seasonal. According to the federal Census Bureau, in 2015 close to 16% of individuals in Jonesport lived below the poverty line (Maine’s poverty rate was 13.4% in 2016, according to the Bureau). A.C. Inc. keeps its employees working throughout the year, an important distinction in an area traditionally dependent on seasonal jobs.
The key to keeping everyone working is diversification, Carver said. In the early 1980s, the company sold its shucked clams to one major client. Things went along smoothly until one day that client said that he wouldn’t buy Carver clams anymore. “Now that was a real wake-up call. It showed me exactly how fragile what we were doing really was,” Carver said. “Our employees need year-round work. We owe it to them. I knew we needed to have a bunch of things to maintain stability and employment for our workers.”
So Carver Shellfish diversified. In 1985, a new 2,400-square-foot processing plant opened on Black Duck Cove Road on the island. In 1986, they built a lobster pound with a capacity of 65,000 pounds and began to offer lobster to customers. In 1990, they took over another pound, adding an additional 35,000 pounds of storage capacity. In 1996, the Black Duck Cove Road plant gained another 6,400 square feet of space, and a third lobster pound, which holds 200,000 pounds of lobster, was constructed. In 1997 A.C. Inc. was established as a division of Carver Shellfish. The processing plant was expanded again; by 2011, A.C. Inc. had the ability to store 430,000 pounds of live lobster.
Wendell Bradford is the company’s quality control officer. An amiable man in his early 80s, he confesses that he’s retired five times already but that Albert drew him out of retirement several years ago. On a tour of the plant, he shows a visitor the many marine species that A.C. Inc. provides its customers. Lobster and soft shell clams are key products, but the company also provides crab meat, scallops, mahogany clams, periwinkles, and whelks. A crate of golf ball-sized whelks is hauled from holding tank for inspection.
“We process everything by hand. It’s not done by machines. That means we can change over at a moment’s notice to satisfy a customer,” Carver explained. “We have the people and they can make changes quickly. We are dependable.”
“A.C. Inc. is always thinking of new products, or a twist on an old one,” Carver said. “This is a business that changes so much. You have to stay one step ahead or you are falling behind.” He references the company’s newest product, fresh frozen steamer clams. He declined to discuss how he freezes the clams. “I can’t tell you the process. But I can tell you that if you take them out and cook as directed, you won’t be able to tell the difference.”
Innovation seems to be the name of the game at A.C. Inc. Yet a quick stroll down to Perio Point takes one back to the beginning some sixty years ago. The old green building where Oscar operated his general store and first started buying clams sits overlooking the company’s two lobster pounds, slightly dilapidated, but still sound in its lines, a fitting tribute to a company moving steadily into the future.