VINALHAVEN — The summer of 2012 was a dark time for lobstermen, as a glut of product depressed boat prices to historic lows. It was the summer Byron Thomas began his first serious foray into the industry, hauling traps by hand from a skiff.

“At a certain point, he couldn’t go,” remembers Yvonne Thomas, his mother. The price he was getting for his lobster wasn’t covering the cost of fishing.

“I can remember him telling me, ‘My product isn’t worth anything,'” she said, no doubt having the expected effect on a loving mother.

But instead of suggesting he give up or try another line of work, Thomas urged the family pitch in and find a niche market for his catch. That niche will be Vinalhaven Seafood, a family business she hopes will be up and running by Memorial Day.

But don’t picture lobster rolls. The business will create a Lousiana-flavored, ready-to-eat meal called lobster etouffée.

Thomas grew up in New Orleans, where he father had gone to medical school at Tulane University and then stayed to practice. Her mother was from Baton Rouge. Regional cuisine is Cajun or Creole based, though outsiders usually don’t know the difference.

“I consider it more Creole,” she said of the etouffée. And it’s nothing new in the Thomas household.

“We’ve had the lobster etouffée for years,” and friends and summer residents would ask her to make it for their dinner parties.

“It’s a very simple recipe,” Thomas said.

First comes the “roux,” a flour and butter mix.

“Roux is huge in New Orleans,” she said, to which are added what is called the “Holy Trinity” of local cooking: bell peppers, onions and celery. Then, it’s a little tomato sauce and finally—of course—the lobster.

“It’s a stew,” she said, and is cooked for four hours, then served over rice. “It’s very filling, very rich.”

The New Orleans version is made with that city’s version of the lobster: crawfish.

Thomas gave a quick tour of the harbor-front building in which the family will process the lobster and cook the etouffée. The plan is to process twice-weekly, processing about 90 pounds of lobster each time. The product will be offered in pint and quart containers.

“It freezes really well,” she said, but the bulk will be available fresh.

The family anticipates summer folks ordering dozens of servings for dinner parties, and even shipping frozen servings throughout the continental U.S.

“We want to try to market it as a holiday meal or a gift,” Thomas said.

The etouffée will be sold locally at the ARCafé and the island farmers market and at Calderwood Hall on North Haven. When possible, ingredients will be purchased from the island’s Spark Plug Farm.

Getting the necessary permits, equipment and inspections has been a learning experience for the family, and Thomas said son Byron, 18, has been soaking it all up as a crash course in business. In fact, Byron wrote the business plan as a school project, along with island resident Tristan Jackson’s help.

“I really see him as being an entrepreneur. And we really do believe in the product,” she said.

Thomas is a guidance counselor and health teacher at the island school, but has been on sabbatical through the second half of the school year. She’s lived on the island for 20-plus years, first visiting with friends while a college student.

“It just suits me,” she said of island life. “I just loved it, right off the boat. I gave up and gave in.”

Elarier this year, Thomas completed the ISLE program, an entrepreneur training for islanders offered by Leadership for Local Change and the Island Institute (publisher of The Working Waterfront), which she said helped her refine her vision and plans.

Vinalhaven Seafood’s logo was designed by island artist Robert Indiana, for whom Thomas’ husband Jamie now works. For more information, see: 

Yvonne Thomas serves on the Island Institute’s board of directors. The Island Institute publishes The Working Waterfront.