ELLSWORTH — It’s true that “riverside” sounds, perhaps, a little less glamorous than “oceanside,” said Brian Langley, who for roughly a quarter-century, has owned the Union River Lobster Pot with his wife, Jane.
But that doesn’t matter to the Langleys.
“I’ve really grown to love my stretch of the river,” said Brian. “In the midst of a busy day, when I can look over and see 70,000 cars an hour or whatever it is on the Union River Bridge, I can see an aerial battle of three ducks chasing an eagle.”
From the restaurant’s perch on South Street, the wide green lawn slopes down to the river, where visitors can spot seals and muskrats, bobcats and mink, said Jane. Even in the haze of a mad summer rush, fetching cocktails, plopping lobsters into the pot, Brian stops for a moment when he hears an eagle’s high-pitched whistle.
The Union River Lobster Pot, which opened its door in late June nearly 25 years ago, was recently awarded the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce’s Top Drawer Award, an honor that is bestowed on a local business “that has made a substantial contribution to the growth and development of the community, region and or state,” according to a Chamber press release.
The Langleys met working at the Duffy’s Quarterdeck restaurant in Bar Harbor and had both been in the business for years before they closed on the South Street property. They’d operated the Oak Point Lobster Pound together in Trenton for a decade, and “approached the new venture [in Ellsworth] with both experience and naivete,” according to the release.
The property they settled on, tucked just off Route 1 behind Rooster Brother, had been, in various iterations, a coal yard, a hardware store, a kitchen store and a fish market. By the time the Langleys arrived, the building had been sitting empty for years.
The couple set to work. They cleaned up the riverbank, moved the existing building onto a foundation and built a dining room where visitors could take in a view of the river while lobster juice dribbled down their chins. They brought in local fish, shellfish and produce, and would eventually add a screened porch for diners to enjoy the riverfront. It was a learning process from the beginning.
“The biggest mistake people make is not understanding your customer,” said Brian. He was trained classically, “by two Swiss chefs and an Italian chef,” but that food often didn’t sell. They thought they would do a brisk lunch trade with the locals, but that didn’t work the way they thought it would either. They were catering to largely a seasonal crowd and retirees, which meant adjusting the menu to fit what their customers wanted.
“We learned what lane we need to travel in,” said Brian. That meant expanding the menu but keeping what customers came back year after year to enjoy.
“That’s the thing about a seasonal restaurant that’s different from a year-round place,” said Brian. “We have sort of a different master than your place in town.”
The Union River Lobster Pot, said Brian, “fits the Maine experience.” That means “big lobsters, water views and blueberry pie.”
He recalled a couple that visit every year from Texas.
“For 30 years, he and his wife have had nothing but the shore dinner,” said Brian, noting that that includes chowder, lobster, steamers and mussels (served with hot drawn butter), french fries, coleslaw and homemade bread. “That’s what Maine means to them.”
That means when the Langleys try and change a beloved menu item, they hear about it.
“The headline,” said Brian, referring to this article, should be “We’re bringing back the seafood Caesar salad!” (They changed it to lobster Caesar last year. “Oh, we heard about that,” said Jane.)
“A lot of people consider this kind of work an ‘until’ job,” said Brian. “‘Until I get my college degree, until I find something else.’ Then people find they like this industry because of all the things it offers. It fits a lot of people’s needs.”
“It’s a good balance of the physical and mental,” said Jane, who has a degree in education but enjoyed restaurants so much “I never taught anything other than Sunday school.”
They’ve also loved the seasonal aspect.
“This business can suck the life out of you if you let it,” said Brian. Having time off allows for rest, travel, exploring trends and thinking about the business.
“That has kept us in the game,” said Brian.
“It has kept us married, frankly,” said Jane.
Asked what advice they would give to young restaurateurs starting out in a notoriously tough business, Jane said being ready to work, “to really work,” is key. “Don’t ever think you know” everything, she added. There’s always more to learn.
Brian’s advice? Know your customers and find a seasonal place if you can.
One of the most rewarding aspects of owning a restaurant? The opportunity to work alongside family. Most of the Langley clan has been on the roster at one point or another, from the couple’s children to their siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins and even Jane’s dad, Bill Bromley. Last summer, their grandson Itsuki joined the ranks — and loved it so much he decided to stay in Ellsworth and finish high school.
“That’s been a joy for us,” said Jane. “It’s been so rewarding.”
The Langleys will be presented with the award at the Chamber’s annual awards dinner on May 21.