The Red Hook Lobster Pound opened April 24, 2009, on Van Brunt Street, selling live lobsters Gorham drove down weekly on ice in the back of his Chevy Avalanche. On weekends, the couple sold lobster rolls at the Brooklyn Flea. “We were completely sideswiped” by their success, Povich recalls, as she answers her phone (ringtone: “Rock Lobster”) to field orders.
They were offering real Maine lobster, at $9 a pound. Their roll was then $14, and to go. And the style—big chunks of meat, with a restrained amount of homemade mayonnaise and scarcely noticeable celery on a top-sliced J.J. Nissen bun from Maine, finished with a dusting of paprika—was pretty damn close to the real thing. Scallions, “my only non-Maine thing, are just there for a little bite,” Povich says. She also offers a Connecticut-style buttered version of the roll.
Red Hook’s business took off. Having started with a $10,000 investment, they were cash-flow positive within a month. They bought a van (when Ralph was driving his Avalanche, lobsters were dying on the BQE), then a second, and now have nineteen employees. Gorham hasn’t stopped making farm tables, and Povich hasn’t quit lawyering yet, but they’re bringing 1,000 pounds of lobster down from Maine every week and recently expanded to Washington, D.C., via a truck selling lobster rolls.
Povich and Gorham weren’t alone in spotting an opportunity. In October, Luke’s Lobster opened on 7th Street in the East Village. Luke’s, too, owed its birth to the recession. Two years out of Georgetown, and working as a third-year analyst at CS Capital Advisors, Luke Holden saw his friends losing their jobs and started thinking about contingency plans. Holden is Maine-lobster royalty. His father, Jeff, a former lobsterman, owns Portland Shellfish, one of the two biggest processors in the state. Luke himself, while still in high school, built his own lobster boat and fished 150 traps.
Now, father and son saw an angle. With the family firm supplying the meat, there would be fewer middlemen. Luke’s could piggyback on the firm’s preexisting five-day-a-week truck deliveries, which meant the meat would be fresher (48 hours from boat to store) and cheaper—enough to allow a $14 lobster roll even with Manhattan rents.
The Holdens could offer something else as well. Lobsters from Canada’s less stringently conservationist fishery are commonly laundered through Maine processing facilities and misleadingly labeled as Maine lobster. The Holdens recognized that at a time when what people eat is increasingly as much an ethical as a gustatory question, being able to fly the trap-to-table flag would appeal to New York’s conscientious eaters. “We know the exact source of all our food,” Luke says. “We can trace it from the bottom of the ocean to the East Village.”
Luke’s, which limits its rolls to knuckles and claws (sweeter and more tender than tails), with a sprinkling of celery salt, was an instant hit on Yelp and recently expanded to the Upper East Side. In April, Luke quit banking to devote himself full-time to the business.
Distant, seemingly unrelated events—environmental, financial, and behavioral—are recasting the highbrow shellfish of yore into inexpensive street food.
Last July, 22 miles off the coast of Maine, a 41-year-old lobsterman named Christopher Young discovered that his trap lines near Matinicus Island had been cut. Suspecting a mainland rival, 68-year-old Vance Bunker, Young pulled alongside Bunker’s boat and boarded it, pirate style. He wrestled with the older man until Bunker emptied a can of pepper spray into his face. Later that day, the two men faced off on a pier on Matinicus. Bunker drew a .22-caliber handgun and shot Young in the neck. Bunker was arrested and charged with elevated aggravated assault, while Young was helicoptered to a hospital for surgery. This past March, after a five-day trial in which Bunker testified that he had been acting in self-defense, he was acquitted.
While shootings are rare, the Maine-lobster fishery has always been fiercely territorial, and in recent years tensions have risen. Now, the same sharp-clawed sense of turf and competition has trickled down from the lobster boats to the lobster-roll purveyors.
Red Hook’s Gorham, who is said to have once brandished a 9-mm. handgun in the midst of heated negotiations with Maine-lobster brokers, rebuffed my requests to accompany him on one of his runs to Maine, citing “trade secrets.” Povich, still smarting from losing out to the restaurant Ditch Plains on the lobster-roll concession at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1 this summer, is bringing the fight to them by setting up a pop-up stand nearby. And she’s not above talking down the competition. “Luke pre-proportions all his lobster in Maine and brings it down. I think it looks weird when you actually unwrap Saran Wrap with four ounces of lobster in it. I actually, unlike the guys at Luke’s, am a trained professional chef.” She is milder about Ben Sargent, whom she is fond of and who is using her lobster meat in his rolls, after all. “Ben’s has gotten better, I think, than when he first started … Look, I prefer my style.”