When Merritt Carey was just 11, her father bought her a Boston Whaler. They putted across Tenants Harbor from their home to the wharf where Anne Miller ran the Cod End seafood market. “They had this idea for me to go around to the cruising sailboats visiting the harbor and sell cooked lobsters,” says Carey.
Thus Merritt’s Delivery Service was established, a summer business benefitting Carey and the Miller family, owners of the wharf. “It was a pretty great gig,” Carey says, remembering those days happily.
George Carey and his family spent every summer in Tenants Harbor. Now Merritt Carey comes back to Tenants Harbor with her own family, the fifth generation to summer on the edge of Penobscot Bay. While the kids will be lobstering from their skiff, Carey will be busy running Luke’s Lobster on Millers’ Wharf.
Luke’s Lobster was created by Luke Holden of Cape Elizabeth in 2009 when he craved a real Maine lobster roll while living in New York. Today Luke’s has “shacks” in 10 states as well as Japan and Taiwan. Tenants Harbor is Luke’s only shack in his home state, and Carey gets some of the credit for helping that come about in the summer of 2016.
She connected with Holden on a whim, moved to take action when she heard the Miller brothers were thinking about selling the wharf a few years ago. “So many of Maine’s family wharves have been bought up by larger companies and they were finding it harder to compete,” Carey says. The fishermen were also finding the catch, and the price they could receive for it, to be more unpredictable. The volatility began to wear on them. While lobstering briefly with Peter Miller for an article she was writing, Carey wondered aloud whether the restaurant at Cod End, which had been closed for two seasons, would ever reopen. With the typical dry wit of a Maine lobsterman, Miller answered, “We’ve just been waiting for you to come back and run it, Merritt.”
“I didn’t know Luke. But I researched who buys lobster and discovered that it’s important to him to tell the story of their food,” says Carey. She was able to get him on the phone, and while they were talking, Holden pulled up a Google street view map to check out the location. “Are those picnic tables?” he asked Carey. “The wharf definitely piqued his interest,” she says.
It seems Holden was interested in not just buying lobsters from Tenants Harbor, but also re-establishing the restaurant in the old Cod End space. The company is fully committed to traceable, sustainable ingredients, handling every step of the supply chain from boat and dock to processing to the plate. Tenants Harbor presented the opportunity for Luke’s to create a vertically integrated partnership with the fishermen, giving them a successful processor and restaurant group to supply on a regular basis.
To make the idea a reality, Holden looked to the co-op model, already a proven idea in Maine. But they needed more fishermen to participate. Once again, Carey became the connector. “Until you’ve worked with fishermen, you have no idea how resistant they can be to change,” she says. “The Millers have known me since I was a little kid working for their mother, and they trust me to keep their best interests in mind. The other fishermen trusted them. It made the conversations a little easier.”
Communication and transparency were key ingredients to successfully establishing the co-op. Holden showed up to every meeting, getting to know the fishermen, answering questions. “As a Mainer, Luke’s heart is at the shore. His grandfather was a fisherman and his father, a lobsterman turned processor, received the first processor license in the state. He understands the business in a way that’s consistent with how he grew up,” Carey says.
With the four Miller brothers and several of Anne Miller’s grandchildren, as well as a handful of fishermen from Tenants Harbor, Holden and Carey founded the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op. They both serve on its board. The co-op, now in its third season, sells its entire haul to Luke’s Lobster. In the summer, some of it of it will remain at the wharf, where lobster takes center stage on the Luke’s at Tenants Harbor menu. The rest gets shipped to Luke’s Seafood Company in Saco for processing, then on to other Luke’s shacks. Half of the profits from the shack in Tenants Harbor will go to the co-op.
Carey, a lawyer turned consultant, has never managed a restaurant before but that doesn’t faze her. She has spent weekends training at the Luke’s Lobster shack in Boston, making lobster rolls and mopping floors alongside college kids. “I’m terrified, but optimistic and excited about the summer. Mostly I want to create the most authentic experience I can,” she says. “It’s nice to have the structure and support of Luke’s behind me.”
Luke’s at Tenants Harbor differs from the other Luke’s shacks mostly by its setting. This is a working wharf and diners will experience all that entails. Piles of traps, boats tying up and lobstermen hauling their catch into the kitchen are part of everyday life at the co-op’s wharf. For visitors in search of the quintessential Maine experience, this is it. “The point of the shack is to connect guests with the source,” Carey explains. “They can see it, smell it and ultimately taste it.”
The menu is broader than at most of Luke’s shacks, taking advantage of a full kitchen. It includes their famous lobster and crab rolls, but also steamed whole lobster and fried haddock. Carey is committed to using local resources, including salad greens and craft beer. “I’ve been working with Luke’s chef to pare the menu, using the best of what’s locally available,” she says. Carey is also planning a traditional lobster feed on Mondays with everything steamed together “the way fishermen eat lobster at the shore.”
“The shack is emblematic of what Luke’s is doing all over the country,” says Carey. “It’s the completion of an ocean-to-plate story that started 30 years ago with Cod End.” And she’s ready for the challenge, saying, “I’m just a summer kid who wanted to come back.”
Luke’s Lobster at Tenants Harbor
12 Commercial St., Ste. George