The Lobster Rolls On
Andrea Anthony had plans to become a psychologist. That all changed one morning in 1977, when the manager of her then-husband’s restaurant quit, and she stepped in to run the business. In the nearly 40 years since, Anthony has come to understand one of the universe’s most indelible truths: that trying to plan for life is about as foolproof as running a restaurant in Montauk.
In the New York summer haven often referred to as “The End of the World,” the only thing more uncertain than the weather might just be the soaring rental market. And both wash up perspective restaurants in waves each season. Yet standing for half a century on Montauk Highway, just across from Napeague Harbor, is Anthony’s Lobster Roll, which opens the first week of May and closes sometime in October. Anthony didn’t want to reveal exactly how many covers the concept, known, of course, for its legendary lobster rolls, can do during a busy in-season lunch, but let’s just say there’s a comma in the figure. In the last couple of years, Anthony’s restaurant has also taken on another distinction: Hollywood star.
Showtime’s acclaimed TV drama “The Affair,” has made the Lobster Roll a central figure during its first two seasons. The show garnered a Golden Globe in 2015 for Best Television Show: Drama, and Best Actress in a Television Series Drama (Ruth Wilson). This past year, Maura Tierney took one home for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film.
Lobster Roll has been a celebrity since the beginning. In the premiere episode, lead character Noah stops at the restaurant with his family and meets Alison, a waitress. That sets off a torrid affair that serves as the backdrop for the series. Things have progressed to the point where Alison even owns part of the iconic restaurant, recognized by locals for its time-honored “Lunch” sign, with her estranged husband, Cole.
It’s undeniable that getting this sort of national exposure is good for the long-term future of the brand. But given the seasonal nature of her operation, Anthony also admits the experience has been a double-edged sword in some ways. There are times when Showtime doesn’t alert Anthony of their filming schedule until the week-of. And considering the restaurant closes all winter and is at the mercy of Mother Nature come summer, days are worth months from a financial perspective.
“It can be a bit problematic for us,” she says. “It gives people the opportunity to go elsewhere, you know? It’s never a good thing when they plan on coming to you and end up going somewhere else.”
Anthony says she will receive phone calls from potential guests in the offseason asking about her summer schedule. Then, when they eventually arrive and see the store taken over by film crews, there’s an undeniable letdown. It also complicates food sourcing and employee schedules, the latter of which are already challenging due to the yearly summer turnover.
“I don’t even usually go to contract with [the show] until a week before, sometimes even less,” she explains. “For example, they’ll tell me right now, ‘We’re coming in August to film.’ I’m like, ‘That’s great, but that doesn’t really help me. I can’t plan on it, and I can’t give people advance warning.’ … It’s stressful because, being in the restaurant business and having to plan, and staff, and order merchandise, operating by the seat of your pants is not a great thing. But if we want to be involved, we just have to be flexible.”
There are plenty of positives, however. Lobster Roll co-branded T-shirts with the show and is in the process of discussing further promotional ideas. Fans of “The Affair” have also made pilgrimages to the restaurant and repeat guests enjoy the extra buzz.
“Overall, it’s been a great opportunity,” she says. “It’s definitely generated a lot of interest. Even on our social media sites, there’s been a lot of reference to the series.”
Anthony rents the restaurant out to the show, which works perfectly for Showtime since the private residence doesn’t require any additional permits from the city. She says around 150 crew members will come to the space, rearrange the setting, put it back together, and are "just a total group of professionals."
Lately, paying heed to past lessons, Anthony has arranged for the show to just take the space for most of October, even if they only need it for a certain window. This way, she doesn’t have to open and re-open on a whim. “It’s too confusing for customers to see us open one weekend then closed another. Maybe open one day then closed another day,” Anthony explains. “I said, ‘If you need it, you want it, you have to take it for the duration.’ So they took it for three weeks. We opened for the first weekend in October then they rented it for the rest of the month.”
Working with “The Affair” is just another interesting twist for a restaurant that Anthony says “just kind of seeped” into her blood over the decades. After that first venture in 1977, which lasted just a year, Anthony joined the team at the Lobster Roll in 1978 and has been there ever since. Her ex-husband, Fred, is still a silent partner, while Paul DeAngelis, who arrived just three years after Anthony, is “the backbone of the business,” in Anthony’s words.
She’s taught at local universities and spent a lot of time on the lecture circuit. Her specialty: the fact that few people in the country can boast a more accomplished seasonal restaurateur resume. Anthony says the key is consistency, constant innovation, and hands-on passion. For that first note, she’s always revamping her training program for new employees. The restaurant recently progressed from manuals to bullet points, understanding that servers looking for summer jobs may not exactly possess the best attention spans. “But, if they want to work here, they still have to memorize the menu, and they have to know sanitation and safety and customer relations,” she notes, adding they hold a pre-shift meeting 15 minute prior to each run.
“We train them and show them how to be efficient in the restaurant without compromising customer service,” she continues. “How to make suggestions, how to evaluate who you’re waiting on and how to best make the menu meet their needs. Instead of being an order taker, they’re sales people. They’re customer relations people.”
The 185-seat restaurant features everything from charbroiled chicken breasts to veggie burgers, but its heart remains in the ocean. Everything from 3-pound steamed whole lobsters to Puffers ‘n’ Chips are offered. Even here, Anthony says nostalgia has to be balanced with current trends. One example is when a regular guest found out her daughter had celiac disease. She asked if she could bring her own gluten-free hot dog rolls. “I said, ‘You know what, I’ll get them for you,’” Anthony recalls. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll find something and I’ll have them here.”
When there were leftovers, she put up a sign that read, “Gluten-Free Lobster Rolls Available Upon Request,” and the floodgates were opened. Now, she stocks a gluten-free menu at all times. “We were probably the first gluten-free lobster roll, ever,” she says.
Anthony has also co-authored a cookbook and is working on a second. In addition, she is the owner of a wholesale retail company called Andrea’s Obsession Homemade Desserts, and has three grown boys, twins aged 26, and a 30-year-old. She’s hasn’t encouraged any of them to enter the business, but has no plans of stepping aside, either.
“I’m not ready to pass the baton just yet,” says Anthony, who turns 60 in March. “Just at the time when I’m completely burnt and done, the season’s over. I have winters to rejuvenate and by the time the spring comes along, I’m ready. I love the business and I love what I do.”