Lesson from the lobster pot: selling what people want
Near the pristine mountains and crashing seascape of Acadia National Park sits a humble restaurant that turns sweet, tender lobster meat into restaurant gold.
The Union River Lobster Pot Restaurant in Ellsworth, Maine isn’t fancy. There’s always a line to get in. And they don’t do takeout.
But what longtime owner Brian Langley delivers on the plate is the meal Maine tourists and locals will wait patiently for: lobster, blueberry pie, and a water view.
“When I first opened the restaurant in 1996, I would offer classical European specials, and they just weren’t selling,” Langley says. “Then one night, after an argument with my wife Jane about the menu, I created a special sole dish prepared with crabmeat and hollandaise, and we sold out of it in 45 minutes.
“This is when I learned to sell what people want to buy rather than what I want to cook.”
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Langley offers his thoughts on success in the food biz and concerns about proposed minimum-wage hikes to hospitality.
Q: Tell me more about selling what people want to buy.
I came at the hospitality field having taught culinary skills in the classroom at the Hancock County Technical Center and after I apprenticed with two chefs perfecting my skills at classical European cooking. But the dishes I prepared just weren’t selling.
Then I took a step back and realized that you can get a classical European meal on any corner of the earth, but we have something you can’t get anywhere else: a Maine lobster that is hours old, not days old.
This is when I realized that people who dine out on the Maine coast want lobsters, blueberry pies (when our blueberries are in season), and a water view.
Q: How does Union River Lobster Pot Restaurant deliver?
We prepare lobster about 10 different ways. And the lobster we’re selling is the best in the world. Our lobsters are literally just off the boat, and we have an organic farmer coming through the doors on Tuesday and Fridays making deliveries.
We also have a strong following for our fish specials, which include halibut, salmon and swordfish. And we serve the classic fried seafood platters and clams.
Our desserts are also classic New England, made from our seasonal strawberries and blueberries. And we sit on the banks of the Union River, and offer our guests Adirondack chairs where they can watch seals, Osprey and other seabirds while they wait for a table.
Q: Why are Maine lobsters so good?
That is a question I’ve been asking fishermen for 30 years! One of the answers I hear is that Maine lobsters get good water flow from Nova Scotia, which imparts a good exchange of nutrients.
Q: How do you net your customers?
I do a lot of marketing, but the number one thing we do is take care of them once we get them here.
One thing I do that’s a bit of a risk is that I don’t do takeaway because the customers sitting in the restaurant are my priority, and I don’t want to slow down the kitchen. This way, we don’t let customers ‘jump the line’ so to speak.
So, we do have a wait for service. But we send customers outside with a cocktail and invite them to wait in our Adirondack chairs and watch seals and seabirds. Our customer satisfaction is very high.
Q: What is your concern about proposed minimum-wage hikes in Maine?
I just finished up 10 years of serving in the state legislature, and have listened to both sides of the minimum wage debate. In Maine, we had 4,000 servers come out to oppose a wage hike because they recognize that a mandated hike would reduce their wages. Right now, my servers are making $40 and hour. There’s a minimum wage and the rest they earn in strong tips. My concern (and theirs) was that that if a mandatory minimum wage increases to $15 an hour, that it will effectively reduce their hourly rate because food will get more expensive and patrons will tip less.
I would also worry that restaurants overall would turn to an upscale counter-service style restaurant with fewer servers.
The Lobster Pot has been a starting job for many professionals in our area, people who went on to become doctors and lawyers, and who look back at their time in food service as one of their fondest memories. I hope our restaurant and others like it are able to keep a good thing going, and offer good jobs.
Q: Speaking of keeping going, how do you fuel up? What do you cook for yourself when you’re not managing the restaurant?
Summer is so warm that I like to do a simple salad with protein on it, like a steak with beer-braised onions. In the winter months I do a lot of Asian cooking, because I love the spice of Thai and Japanese food. But nothing beats a nice ribeye steak either! — Union River Lobster Pot Restaurant uses Boxerbrand’s Café Line in its table presentation. Thank you!