WILMINGTON — For a New Englander who didn’t eat lobster rolls much in his youth, Bill Irwin has turned plenty of Southerners onto the Northern handheld since opening Maine Lobster Roll Company in fall 2019.
“My mother grew up in Cape Elizabeth, which is right on the coast, and she loved her lobster — I mean, just loved it. But we still only had it occasionally,” Irwin said.
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By next week, Wilmington diners with an adoration for the sandwich will be able to eat at Maine Lobster Roll Company in two locations. Christmas week, Irwin and his family, including wife, Monica, will open the second store in the former Nakedfin Poke Bowl at 420 Eastwood Road.
“I’m aiming for Dec. 20,” he said. “That’s when I opened in Monkey Junction. But my daughter is having her wisdom teeth pulled that day, so I’m going to open at least for an hour, just to say that I opened on the 20th — but the first full day will be the 21st.”
The new location is 1,500 square feet and features roughly 20 seats, a bit different from how the Bangor, Maine, native enjoyed the sandwiches from his hometown as a youngster: often purchased from roadside lobster shacks on the way to the shore.
“When I announced this second location — which got out way quicker than I wanted it to — I told people I did it just because I had all these lobster carts in my garage,” Irwin quipped.
Really, it’s to serve a growing clientele.
He chose the Wrightsville Beach side of town because it’s far enough from his current location — seven miles from Pleasure Island — to draw a different crowd, and then some. Folks from the Hampstead and Porters Neck areas, even Leland, will be closer to the Eastwood store.
It’s one of the only complaints he hears from customers who traverse the city to reach the 5202 Carolina Beach Road restaurant.
“It can be a 45-minute drive to get from Wrightsville Beach or Mayfaire to here — even driving to Ogden can be just brutal during the day,” he said.
The two stores will operate with the same menu; however, the Eastwood location will have more daily specials, including soups and sandwiches.
“I expect there to be a bigger lunch crowd there,” he said.
Around 40,000 cars travel down Eastwood Road daily, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
“It will have quick inexpensive lunches — including non-lobster sandwiches, like a grilled cheese and tomato bisque or tuna fish sandwich and chicken noodle soup,” he said
The grilled cheese has become popular at the eatery already, one of the only non-seafood offerings on the lobster-heavy menu. The lobster bisque and clam chowder also remain local favorites.
But Maine Company’s four lobster rolls, nestled in a split-top, buttered New England-style bun, are the star of the show. The Mainah is served traditionally — lobster, light coating of mayo and served chilled — while The Portland is basically a BLT, add lobster. The Stonington comes warm, served with melted butter, while The Rockland is also chilled, served with lobster, mayo, lettuce, celery, onion, chives.
The crustaceans are ordered fresh from Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, Maine, caught from the Penobscot Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Maine and Atlantic Ocean.
“So it’s all the cold-water lobster from Connecticut all the way up to the Atlantic in Canada — and it is delicious,” Irwin said. “I don’t know if it’s the water temperature, but there’s a sweetness of the lobster that comes out.”
The rolls come in three sizes — half, whole and hearty — priced $11.99 to $29.99.
“We have only raised our prices a few dollars through Covid,” Irwin said.
The lobster industry wasn’t remiss of supply-chain demands. A 30% tariff came off lobsters for oversea markets in 2021.
“And then the price just went up — it doubled,” Irwin said.
Though costs have decreased on the seafood a bit since, shipping prices have risen, not to mention costs on daily operational supplies, as well as waste management and electricity bills.
“But I don’t foresee having to raise my prices again,” Irwin said.
Eighty-five percent of Maine Lobster Roll Company’s business is to-go, something Irvin wasn’t necessarily planning on when he mapped out his business plan. The restaurant was open for a couple of months before the pandemic forced operations to curbside takeout.
It also was the Irwin family’s first run in the restaurant industry, so there was no real blueprint or barometer to go by and course-correct. Yet, their following grew despite Covid, and as they were building their customer base, they added menu items to see what worked and didn’t.
Maine Lobster Roll Company’s famed lobster mac and cheese came from the pandemic.
“We’ve pumped so much out of here that you just wouldn’t believe it,” Irwin said. “I’m amazed at the amount — because, you know, cheese and lobster didn’t go together for years.”
He tested the best way to prepare the white-cheddar pasta dish with the shellfish, including how long it could sit before the lobster overtook the flavor profile.
“45 minutes,” Irwin said, “and then you couldn’t taste the individual flavors.”
So, instead, he tops the mac and cheese with Parmesan and panko bread crumbs, bakes it off and then places the butter-soaked lobster on top so customers can stir it in and preserve the nuance of tastes.
Irwin also has perfected the care in building a righteous roll indicative of home. He said it comes down to simplicity: no Brioche buns or fancy sauces.
“One of my big things is the least amount of time on the roll for the lobster meat, the better, or the rolls get soggy,” Irwin said.
When he first had the idea to launch a restaurant after coming out of corporate America, everyone suggested a food truck to test the waters and get into the swing of business. But Irwin calls himself a “fly by the seat of [his] pants” kind of guy, yet who also has an appreciation for customer feedback.
They will be integral to helping build the daily specials menu on Eastwood, Irwin said. They’re also central to his love for this business.
“I’m a talker,” he said. “I’m a little old school and I enjoy people coming in and sitting down. I don’t want to just be behind a window throwing food at people.”
Irwin has a five-year plan that includes opening five restaurants and then retiring. Covid-19 skewed things a bit, but Irwin, one to adapt and shift with the tides, said it’s not stopping the end-goal. He suggested his next restaurant could open toward Jacksonville or Shallotte.
He also is thinking back to those lobster shacks of yesteryear — an idea he hasn’t quite staved off either.
“There’s a spot down on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk open right now,” Irwin said. “If I hadn’t taken Eastwood, I would have grabbed this one. The idea of a seasonal business is very appealing to me: Come October, you lock the doors and don’t worry about it for a few months. That would be wonderful.”
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