Lobster Shack

September 10, 2018 | By: Merritt Carey

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Summertime in Maine means one thing: lobster.  From the 5,000 lobster fishermen to the throngs of tourists who flock to our rocky shore – everyone is focused on Maine’s famous crustacean.  After all, combined with tourism, it’s our State’s biggest economic driver and by far our biggest fishery.  We’ve got over 5,000 licensed lobster fishermen, each with 800 traps. Up and down the coast our harbors come alive at around 4am each morning with the rumble of diesel engines as our fishermen head out to haul their traps.

I’ve spent every summer but one in the small coastal fishing village of Tenants Harbor, as my father did before me and his mother before him. Our roots to this rocky outpost stretch back 5 generations, when my great, great grandfather sought to escape the heat of Massachusetts and came to Maine as a rusticator.  After my kids got out of school, we returned, as we always do, to Tenants Harbor. But this summer I’m forgoing the usual family traditions of island outings, cocktail gatherings and the like to run a lobster shack serving up lobster dinners and lobster rolls to those hungry for our state’s delicacy.  We opened the Tenants Harbor shack June 21st. Prior to that my restaurant and cooking experience consisted of a few brief stints as a waitress while in college and making Annie’s Mac ‘n Cheese for my three kids. I’m a lawyer turned consultant, a Brown graduate, I’ve sailed in the America’s Cup and competed in a round-the-world sailing race – how hard could running a lobster shack be?

lobster - lobster shack

Turns out, quite a bit goes into putting out a tasty steamed lobster dinner or a lobster roll.  As someone who consistently leaves the grocery shopping list on the kitchen table and is forever returning to the store to pick up items forgotten, ordering supplies for a shack that serves up hundreds of lobster and crab rolls is most definitely like drinking from the proverbial fire hose.  But the most challenging part for many other restaurants that serve cooked lobster dinners– getting and keeping fresh live lobster – is easy for us.  Our shack sits right on a commercial fishing wharf, home to the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op, which I helped establish, with local fishermen and Luke Holden, back in 2016. And this is why I’ve chosen to spend my summer serving up lobster dinners to those who come through these doors – to keep building the small economic engine that our fishing villages need.

I worked on this wharf as a kid, running cooked lobster and clams out to cruising yachts in the harbor, and later as a ‘dock girl’ fueling up boats that came in.  I’ve known the family (the Millers – 9 siblings in total) that owns the wharf since I was a kid.  Back in 2016, while lobstering with one of the brothers, I’d learned that they were considering selling it.  Understandable given the competition (Linda Bean, of L.L. Bean, had purchased the wharf next door; more and more what were once family-owned wharfs are now corporate owned).  Never being shy about meddling where I don’t belong and taking on projects I know nothing about, I gave Luke Holden, founder of Luke’s Lobster, a call on a whim he might be interested in getting involved.  My hunch was right – Luke and I worked all that winter with the Miller family and other local fishermen to set up the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op, which is vertically integrated with Luke’s Lobster and its seafood processing plant located in Saco, just a few hours south of Tenants Harbor.  Luke re-opened the former Cod End (where I had worked) which had been shuttered for two years, and this winter he and I discussed the possibility of my running the shack with an eye towards getting the shack more closely connected to the co-op and local community (50% of the profits from the shack go back to the fishermen).  Why not, I thought.

Now I’m five weeks into my stint – slowly the fire hose I’ve been drinking from is starting to subside: I’ve got the schedule of when to order from our suppliers down and my jaw no longer drops when our remarkable cook Stephany Miller (who grew up in the kitchen working under her grandmother, aunt and mother when it was Cod End) tells me we need 2 cases of mayo, and 4 cases of butter, etc., etc.  I’ve got a group of local high school kids working for me who knock my socks off every day with their enthusiasm, intelligence and their ability to put their phones away (perhaps my threat, with a wry smile, to chuck one kid’s phone in the drink if I saw him on it again resonated…).

I spend my days intermittently selling live lobster, shucking oysters (a new skill), bringing steamed lobster dinners to happy guests, taking the garbage out, sharing the story of our co-op, our fishermen and the heritage of the wharf.  My kids come and go, out in their own skiff (they set and haul their own lobster traps, selling their catch to the Co-op).  My family comes from the other side of the harbor for drinks and dinner, giving me sidelong looks – unsure whether I need a congratulatory pat on the back or to be lugged to the loony bin. My days are long, I know come Labor Day Sunday when we close up for the season, I’ll be weary and my brand new sneakers will be in need of replacement.  On the other hand, I’m certain I’ll be able to manage the grocery shopping for my own family come fall. And, by the time next summer rolls around, I will have forgotten all the long days, I’ll go out and get myself a new pair of sneaks and do it all again.