A customer unwittingly named Arlene Crismale's lobster business. The man was standing in line in a Branford parking lot, talking on the phone while waiting for a hot buttered lobster roll from her food trailer.
"I'm at the shack," he told the person on the other end.
"When he came up to the window, I said, 'What did you just call [this]?'" Crismale recalls. "He said, 'The shack, everybody refers to it as the
shack.' I said, 'Buddy, you just named my place.'"
Crismale's husband, Nick, a former lobsterman, had bought the trailer some years before. He brought up the idea of using it to sell lobster rolls, but Arlene's first reaction was, "Are you crazy?"
She had retired from a career with the phone company and was working at a gallery, but by 2007, the lobster trailer had become a reality. Crismale had been casually calling the business Branford Lobster, but officially renamed it after her chance encounter with that visitor.
In the nine years since its early beginnings, the cash-only Lobster Shack has moved from its first home in the Maple Street parking lot (a space now occupied by Stony Creek Brewery) to the end of the Birbarie Marina. The burgundy-colored trailer opens for the season in mid-May, normally the Thursday after Mother's Day, and feeds lobster-loving crowds until Columbus Day.
Lobster Shack keeps its menu straightforward, continuing to perfect its flagship item. The standard lobster roll ($16.95) gets 4 ounces of meat, and the "Whaler" doubles the portion to a half-pound ($32.) Meat from Maine and Nova Scotia comes in several times a week, freshly picked, The from a lobster company in Groton.
"I don't compromise," she says. "Lobster is what I do." She insists on fresh meat, never frozen — "You're going to tell the difference, you're going to know" — and salted butter and freshly squeezed lemon to enhance its flavor. Instead of a classic hot dog bun, she uses a grilled sub roll, which best handles toasting and the melted butter, she says.
You won't find any battered and fried seafood at Lobster Shack, but its clams ($6 for a half-dozen, $10 for a dozen) are a perennial favorite, grilled just until they pop open and then brushed with butter. Chowders ($4.25 to $5.50) like creamy New England, broth-based Rhode Island or red pepper-laced shrimp and corn, are available daily.
The Shack also offers Hummel hot dogs ($3.50), Longhini sausage with peppers and onions on a sub roll ($7.25) and a few options for sweets, including gelato ($2.50) and whoopie pies ($3.) Guests BYOB and often tote their own salads, sides and tablecloths.
"They really get into it, which I love to see," Crismale says. "It's definitely a destination."
With Lobster Shack's desirable views of the Branford River, customers often stick around to unwind and relax.
"You could come down here in your bathing suit, you can bring your dog; it's a great place to chill," Crismale says. This season, the shack space sports a new shade system, with a pavilion covering its 30 tables.
Crismale says she wishes she'd started the business well before 2007.
"I never, ever envisioned this. Because every year I say to myself, it was a great year, I just want to do what I did last year. …It just … it gets better. I am shocked, but I'm also so grateful. It just makes it all worthwhile. I'm doing it, working like crazy, and at least people are appreciating it."
Lobster Shack, 7 Indian Neck Ave., Branford, is open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Hours will change after Labor Day. Cash only, BYOB, ATM on premises. 203-483-8414, lobstershackct.com.
This summer we're telling the stories behind Connecticut's beloved seasonal restaurants — the destinations that open for an all-too-brief time period in fair weather. These are the small lobster shacks with the buttery rolls you crave in January when you're shoveling snow, the ice cream stands that throw open their windows with the first warm breeze, the beach-town eateries where the salt of fried whole belly clams and onion rings is enhanced by ocean air. Find the series at ctnow.com/summersweetspots.