By Doreen Leggett
Sam Bradford, tall and lanky, stood in a crowded hallway at the Lobster Trap in Bourne, dwarfed by hundreds of stacked white boxes printed with lobster in red letters and destined for places all over the world.
Bradford, chief financial officer at Mac’s Seafood, had climbed the narrow stairs from the concrete floor below where lobsters were being sorted in an enormous, chilly room.
“We have a really good system; they are grading for shell quality and size,” Bradford said as gray crates filled with lobsters moved along watery tracks in a tank that can hold 100,000 pounds. “We have a 20- to 25-person crew during the day and eight at night. The first job is to pack the international stuff.”
Although the Lobster Trap, which sits in a bend of Shore Road near Monument Beach, is new to the Mac’s business, it has the same feel as the fish market started by the Hay brothers back in 1995 on the Wellfleet Pier. Logan Clarke, who owned the Lobster Trap and still serves as its resident guru, got his start with a small fish market as well.
Mac’s now has five markets and five restaurants and Clarke’s Lobster Trap has the Cape headquarters and three wharves and dealers in Maine that can move close to a million lobsters at a time.
When Clarke, who is 72, decided to sell, he looked to Mac Hay and his cousin Sam.
“Businesses like the Lobster Trap are iconic parts of the fabric of Cape Cod,” Bradford said. “Clarke wanted to preserve his legacy and not sell to some private equity firm. They have been known to come in and swallow properties like this.”
Clarke, who grew the business from a small fish shanty, says he could have gotten more money for the properties, but the deals were too complicated.
“Sam and Mac know the business, they like the business and they are well liked,” Clarke said. “They didn’t want to change anything.”
That commitment to small-scale, day-boat fisheries is at the core of the Lobster Trap’s beginning, which got its start about a decade before Mac and Sam were born.
The Lobster Trap moved everything from shrimp to striped bass to calamari, but its claim to fame was in the name.
“Because of the scale we can pack the lobsters our customers want,” Bradford said. “If you order pound and a half lobsters — the lobsters are a pound and a half.”
Along with international clients, customers include Whole Foods, Stop and Shop, and steak houses galore. One staff member is dedicated to making sure scads of Fed Ex shipments are running on time.
The Lobster Trap is the only place on the Cape where that volume happens. A similar facility couldn’t be permitted today in the same location.
“This is the infrastructure for lobster,” Bradford said; 60 gallons a minute are piped in from Back River. “Strategically it made sense. It doesn’t make sense to build new facilities.”
The Cape is the heart, sending five tractor trailer loads of lobster a day, but this wouldn’t work without three facilities in Maine.
When Clarke started in 1973, he didn’t imagine such a big expansion.
He had just graduated from college, was newly married, and was offered a teaching job in Barnstable, which he didn’t take. He knew the Cape well, he had summered with his parents in Bourne’s Gray Gables, and had been lobstering on the Cape out of Wychmere Harbor in Harwich for a captain named Bobby Brown. Brown later became famous as the owner of the F/V Andrea Gail, which went down in the Perfect Storm.
Clarke soon found that offshore fishing wasn’t for him.
“I got to know a guy in Bourne who owned a little fish market, a postage-stamp-sized building,” said Clarke; the business sold fishing gear and lobster buoys as well.
The owner asked Clark if he wanted to run it. So Clarke ran the place seasonally and after a time switched out the gear for a fish and chips shop. Knowing he had to expand, Clarke began wholesaling.
“I delivered to customers in my car at night,” he said with a chuckle.
There were lots of restaurants and other customers, a steady supply of fish from vessels in the nearby Sandwich Basin and fishermen he had met up and down the Cape.
As he sold more fish, he made several additions to the building, space to cut fish (Woods Hole had an active swordfish fleet), handle a scallop boom off Chatham, and store lobsters.
When Clarke first started, the airlines were leery of shipping seafood around the world, but the packaging improved.
“We were probably one of the first companies to ship to Europe,” Clarke said.
He said if he had to describe the first 30 years it would be “fun — the characters we dealt with,” he laughed, adding the business wasn’t as competitive and the margins were better.
As the Lobster Trap’s customer base grew, Clarke needed more product and began building relationships with boats in Maine and Canada.
“We started to get into lobsters more, built a big tank room,” Clarke said.
Since his competitors owned wharves up in Maine, Clarke invested in some as well, buying a company that had wharves in Stueben, Machiasport and Addison about 15 years ago. The business, BBS, was family owned, named after Blair West, his wife Susan, and mother-in-law,Barbara. Blair stayed on for years after the sale.
The closest wharf, which still comes up BBS in searches, is in Stueben, about six hours away from Bourne. The road to the facility is called Pigeon Hill for the bay it leads to. It’s long and winding and hugs yards studded with stacked lobster traps and more than a few pickup trucks.
Stueben describes itself as a small fishing village and is north of Bar Harbor, along coastal U.S. Route One. Incorporated in 1795 and named after Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a German soldier who helped the colonies during the Revolutionary War, it had a population of 1,129 in the 2020 census.
On a raw, blustery, November day the small dock in Stueben being pelted by rain was quiet. The weather had kept the lobster boats in and the shack where the lobsters are weighed stood empty and drab except for the red lights on the scale.
Down the stairs and off to the side of the dock, several blue and grey bait containers waited. Some filled with small skates, their ghostly white bellies to the sky, and others with big-eyed red fish.
Inside the cavernous building the scene was different as a six-person crew returned from break and began quickly sorting, weighing, and packing hundreds of toted lobsters that had been submerged in a watery holding pen and were heading for dinner plates.
The crew was cherry-picking the inventory, separating the crustaceans by the seven market sizes.
“Chicks, quarter, halfs, large halfs,” manager Victor Sokoloski began to rattle off.
The work was overseen by Sokoloski, a broad-shouldered guy with a sawed off pipe for an earring, who was unfailing polite.
Although a Mainer now – his wife grew up close by – Sokoloski has lobstered up and down the coast, including the Cape. He has also worked with West, Clarke and now Hay and Bradford.
Bradford said he or Hay goes to Maine every few weeks, but the operations run smoothly without them.
“They don’t need to be coddled,” Bradford said.
Sokoloski said the volume of lobsters they handle in Stueben depends on the time of year; they can process 80,000 pounds and hold 460,000 pounds.
“Today was a 10,000-pound day,” he said.
The lobsters are “seasoned” in the tanks. Steuben has a larger tank system than its sister in Machiasport, but works with fewer boats.
When lobsters arrive, they go in the tanks to get some rest and relaxation after the ride. Where they go next has a lot to do with their shell. A hardshell lobster can make a trip overseas fairly easily; a lobster that recently molted needs to stay closer to home.
“An old shell can last much longer; it is like a bear in hibernation. A shedder you want to move in two to three days,” said Sokoloski.
There is another option too, tidal pounding. Pounding helps keep Sokoloski anchored to the business.
“It’s an art,” he said.
Read more about Maine’s unique take on lobster husbandry, the relationships between lobstermen and the wharves, and why it matters to the Cape in the January e-magazine.