Prince Edward Island

If you love lobster, welcome to paradise

Did the Island’s lobster-supper movement start in New Glasgow or St. Ann’s. Who cares? Each summer, it satisfies 250,000 diners

April 27 1981
Prince Edward Island

If you love lobster, welcome to paradise

Did the Island’s lobster-supper movement start in New Glasgow or St. Ann’s. Who cares? Each summer, it satisfies 250,000 diners

April 27 1981

If you love lobster, welcome to paradise

Did the Island’s lobster-supper movement start in New Glasgow or St. Ann’s. Who cares? Each summer, it satisfies 250,000 diners

It's the kind of activity that wins an A rating from government planners. Based on Prince Edward Island’s strongest resources—people, agriculture and the fishery—it offers more than 300 people seasonal employment and creates spinoff jobs and business for many more. That’s the lobstersupper phenomenon and, last year, it filled at least a quarter-million stomachs. Not bad when you consider the Island’s entire population amounts to barely half that number.

There’s good-natured disagreement over who hit on the idea first: The young farmers of New Glasgow or the parish priest of St. Ann’s Church. Father E. Van de Ven, manager of lobster suppers at St. Ann’s since 1975, claims his predecessor, Father Dennis Gallant, was driving east to Charlottetown back in 1963 and much to his disgust, could not find a place to eat. His church was heavily in debt, jobs were scarce, lobsters were plentiful, and the best ideas are often the simplest.

But Ralph Dickieson, manager of the New Glasgow lobster suppers, says that he and other young New Glasgow farmers were first into the business, using it to raise funds for their own organization. Whatever the sequence, by the summer of 1964 both groups were feeding tourists once a week; and five years later, St. Ann’s and New Glasgow both had sizable payrolls and were going full tilt six nights a week. In ’72, St. Ann’s burned its mortgage and, since then, its lobster-supper profits have gone to support a range of charities. In New Glasgow, half a dozen families took over the operation and, although the number has dwindled, it remains locally owned.

While the two pioneers of the trade continue to flourish, they now have several competitors. Eight years ago, the New London Lions Club began to offer suppers. One rough winter, fire destroyed the homes of three or four families. New London organized a fire department, but then it faced the bill for the trucks. Concerts brought the people together but didn’t raise enough money. The answer? A new building for lobster suppers. “Now, our profits support 51 projects,” manager Nelson Roberts reports. “They range from burned-out families, to hockey and ball teams, to relief projects in Guatemala.”

Those good works created a valuable line of credit for the Lions Club when its building burned in December, 1979. Insurance covered only a quarter of its value, but free and low-cost labor and supplies were not hard to find. An elderly man handed Roberts a chocolate-box stuffed with $1,000. A new building was ready in plenty of time for the 1980 season.

Lobster suppers also thrive at Stanhope Beach Lodge, at Howe’s Hall, Brackley Beach, and last season the Fishermen’s Wharf in Rustico entered the field. It’s a privately owned restaurant. Its manager, Albert Dow, figured there was room for further competition, and the 1980 season proved him right. Aside from these major businesses, there are a dozen other private and community-run lobster-supper houses, and not one of them has been foreclosed. Some managers, however, suspect the market is near the saturation point. “We can’t handle more tourists now,” Father Van de Ven says, “because accommodation and transportation facilities here are saturated. They all want to come to this area of the Island.” Inefficient quality-control in some smaller establishments worries Roberts. “There are too many frozen lobsters on the market and too many little places that can’t keep them properly,” he says. “That’s hurting the reputation of the lobster meal.”

What happens to the lobster before you get it depends upon what establishment you visit. Most have on-site pounds. New Glasgow, which served at least 100,000 people last year, probably has the most elaborate system. Its pound holds 22,000 gallons of sea water, hauled in by tanker-truck once a month. New Glagow pioneered the system and processors as far away as Cuba have copied it.

The process is quite different at St. Ann’s. Father Van de Ven orders spring lobsters which are cooked, vacuumpacked and quick-frozen. Two days before they arrive on your plate they are gradually thawed in a cooler. His 1980 forecast proved remarkabley accurate. The last night of the season he had to place a rush order for an extra 50 pounds and, when the doors closed, there were only a couple of meals left. “I had a feed myself.”

Lobster suppers are certainly good value, but don’t expect them to be cheap. In 1980, a one-pound lobster dinner cost $10.75 at New London, 20 cents more at New Glasgow and Fishermen’s Wharf. St. Ann’s offers a 1.3pound serving for $10.78. Bigger servings of 1 /2 pounds were available at New London ($13.75) and New Glasgow ($13.50). For the more affluent or voracious, two-pound servings cost $15.75 at New London, $15.95 at New Glasgow and Fishermen’s Wharf. A very hungry customer could purchase a three-pound lobster meal at Fishermen’s Wharf for $19.95. Mind you, a one-pound lobster consists of a lot of shell and other inedible parts and, consequently, St. Ann’s finds that its six-ounce serving of solid lobster meat sells well.

Those who want the experience more than the lobster, can order steak, ham or beef. (Children’s portions are available too but, for the smaller fry, you might save money by sharing your meal with them.) On the other hand, if you want the lobster but not the experience, buy at the wharf or look in the Yellow Pages under Fish and Seafood. When you buy your own lobsters, $20 goes a long way. Boil them in sea water (and add a little seaweed) for 15 to 20 minutes; or use tap water, lots of salt and bay leaves.

The secret of a successful lobster supper lies not only in the lobster but also in what you get with it. Every establishment offers an array of goods that it bakes on the premises—all the rolls (3,000 at New Glasgow on a busy day), servings of pie, cake or shortcake you can eat. Trimmings vary. Fishermen’s Wharf, for example, provides unlimited quantities of seafood chowder. Beer, wine and liquor are available at almost all suppers, but not New Glasgow’s.

Service is usually efficient and friendly. New Glasgow’s Ralph Dickieson has a theory about that: “People like what they’re doing. They take a lot of pride in it, and they’re proud of the comments they get. And they compete amongst themselves. There’s no pooling of tips, and that keeps them competitive.”

Second-generation waitresses are common now, although Father Van de Ven says many younger people leave to find jobs out west. “We give them a recommendation and they find jobs without much trouble because everybody’s heard of us.” He chuckles about his dual function as priest and business manager. “One man stopped me at the door and said, ‘Father, give me absolution. I’ve committed the sin of gluttony.’ ”