LobsterCraft has signed a lease for the former Bella Gusta space at 981-A Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center.
By Ronni Newton
LobsterCraft is expanding, and will be bringing what has been rated the country’s best lobster roll to West Hartford Center.
With Captain William Michael Harden – known as Captain Mike – and business partner and longtime friend Tommy Gordon at the helm, the successful Fairfield County business is excited to open a second storefront serving primarily lobster rolls, with April 2021 as a target date.
Captain Mike is passionate about lobsters, but admits he’s an accidental restaurant owner. A Coast Guard captain and licensed commercial lobsterman, when the lobsters died off in Long Island Sound he, like many lobstermen, looked for another way to make a living in the industry.
“Mine was a food truck,” Captain Mike said of his new career, and LobsterCraft was spawned in 2012.
The food truck was soon wildly successful, visiting sites throughout Fairfield County, and the current brick and mortar location, at 1891 Post Road in Fairfield, is also immensely popular.
The Fairfield location wasn’t even supposed to be a restaurant, not even a take-out location or store. The space was leased as a commercial kitchen because LobsterCraft couldn’t keep up with demand from its catering business with just the food truck kitchen.
Why West Hartford?
“The West Hartford direction really came from Tommy,” Captain Mike said.
Gordon spent his childhood in West Hartford, and although he went away to school as a teen, he’s always maintained ties to the area and his parents now live in Bloomfield.
Gordon worked on Wall Street, and spent years living in Asia. That’s where he met his wife – who is a Massachusetts native – and where both of their children were born.
When he returned to the states, Gordon moved to Norwalk, and he and Captain Mike became neighbors.
“I watched him grow LobsterCraft on his own – one guy doing the job of 100,” Gordon said. Despite being essentially a one-man show, LobsterCraft’s hot-buttered lobster roll attained countless accolades, and has been named the best in the country by Food Network’s Flavored Nation two years in a row.
“The lobster roll is just outrageous,” Gordon said. He looked at it from the business side, and knew that with some investment and focus on the right demographic, LobsterCraft could be extremely successful.
Gordon said revenue is up 40% in the Fairfield store – the 300 square foot space which was never even meant to be a store.
“The truck was meant to be a vending truck,” Gordon said. “Then people started asking if Mike could do catering. The truck got so popular, and Mike couldn’t make enough on the truck, so he leased out a 300 square foot kitchen in Fairfield.
“People started to come there. They asked for seats and a take-out window,” Gordon said.
“The following that Mike has for these rolls … it’s absurd.”
The business is poised to become much more than a food truck and a small storefront. There’s a Board of Directors that includes Gordon’s financial advisor. He sought the advice of Michael Cantor, chair of Connecticut Innovations, and Cantor (the husband of West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor) is also a Board member. Both supported his idea of expanding to West Hartford.
“My heart being attached to it [made it] a very easy decision,” Gordon said. “I love West Hartford,” he said, noting that the Center retains the old-time atmosphere he remembered from his childhood, but at the same time “this feeling of vibrancy and newness.”
Captain Mike was a bit skeptical at first. “I said, ‘No way I’m opening a store an hour-and-a-half away.'”
He decided to spend a day this past summer in West Hartford. He checked out local restaurants, stopped people on the street, talked to them about the town and about lobster rolls.
“I came back with an understanding that Tommy had something going,” he said.
Commercial property manager Mike Mahoney, of RLM Co, was excited when they found the former Bella Gusta space. “It will be really unique for West Hartford,” he said.
LobsterCraft will have a full kitchen, and Captain Mike said while it will have some seating inside and outside, will focus heavily on take-out. “A luxury grab and go,” he said.
They have perfected the delivery so LobsterCrafts lobster rolls can travel well. The meat, and a perfectly-toasted custom-baked roll, are packed in a box. Butter is provided in a small cup, and can be easily heated when it’s time to eat.
Gordon said his friend’s wife is a self-proclaimed lobster roll snob. He brought two lobster rolls from Fairfield home to her in Boston. “She said they were the best lobster rolls she’s ever had.”
The build-out will take place over the winter, with goal of opening by mid-April.
The menu will include the five primary lobster rolls:
- The “Coastal,” which is the classic Connecticut lobster roll, with hot butter, seasoning, and plenty of lobster
- The “Heat Wave” with habanero and Serrano pepper- infused butter and seasoning
- The “California” which includes avocado, cucumber, and wasabi
- The “L.B.L.T.” – a fan favorite – which includes bacon, lettuce, and tomato topped with mayo and fresh hot lobster
- The “Surf and Turf” with shaved, marinated flank steak (as well as lobster) and garlic aioli
There will also be two soups – a clam chowder and a lobster bisque, which is gluten free.
Homemade lobster mac ‘n cheese and grilled cheese will also be on the menu.
The plan is for the interior to evoke an upscale seaside shack feel, “very warm and inviting,” Captain Mike said. Glass doors will open like an accordion to seamlessly blend the indoors and outdoors.
As a preview for the community, the LobsterCraft food truck will soon be paying a visit to West Hartford. Details to follow.
In addition to the Fairfield store, there is a small shop in the South Norwalk train station, but due to COVID-19 it didn’t make sense to open that location this summer, Captain Mike said.
Opening West Hartford will be the beginning of an expansion that will include several locations in Florida and California and a Las Vegas location.
“Then we are going to Asia,” Gordon said, with an existing commitment in Japan, and plans to expand to Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.
“West Hartford and Fairfield are the launching pads,” he said, two small Connecticut towns at the center of what is planned to become a global LobsterCraft brand.
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