Red’s Eats has a good thing going.
The downtown Wiscasset roadside lobster shack has the biggest lobster roll I’ve ever seen, famously stuffed with the meat of an entire lobster. It’s succulent. It’s delicious. It’s expensive, too. But it’s everything a Maine summer day should be.
You know what else is big at Red’s? The line of customers waiting to order the iconic meal.
I drive past Red’s every other Wednesday around lunchtime, so I’ve become keenly aware of the clientele and their habits. As I approach from the Sheepscot River side of town on Route 1, there are always about three dozen people standing in line. Some hold identical red and white umbrellas I assume Red’s lets customers borrow. On weekends, the line wraps around the back of the restaurant and – no joke – numbers in the hundreds. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve been in it.
Motorists must wonder why so many stand so long for something to eat, and I imagine the hardy customers wonder why the line is so long. While first-time customers may think they had bad luck to visit on such a busy day, Mainers know this is a daily summer occurrence. The line is always ridiculously long at Red’s.
Until last week’s drive-by, I’d never thought about why Red’s or the local, state or even federal government allow the long lines to continue. The scene is a bit silly, really, because it plays out along one of Maine’s busiest thoroughfares. At least a few dozen people huddled on a sidewalk mere feet from Route 1, waiting to buy a lobster roll? Come on.
The line tells me several things about Red’s.
First and foremost, they have a product that’s worth waiting for. Second, they must care for their customers (and not just their money), because they hand out those trusty umbrellas for protection from rain or sun. Third, despite the prospects of a long wait, customers are surprisingly well-behaved.
But what I don’t understand is why the owner of Red’s doesn’t improve the status quo queue.
If the owners know they’ll be inundated day after day, why don’t they ramp up production and churn out lobster rolls with the efficiency of a Henry Ford assembly line? If I had a business experiencing long lines I’d hire more people and cash in. Isn’t that the American way? Grow, grow, grow? Plus, it would help the local and state economy with more taxation and jobs.
So how would I redesign Red’s for quicker production that wouldn’t ruin the quaint feel of the place? If the current shack is too small, with an insufficient number of staff, they could dig down and create subterranean levels with 10 times the floor space and 10 times the staff.
Or, if officials won’t allow digging that close to the river or Route 1, then do what Becky’s Diner in Portland did a few years ago and build up and out. Becky’s can handle significantly more customers now, and Red’s could do the same.
If a larger building footprint isn’t allowed by zoning, then maybe Red’s could do what some tiny houses do: Go straight up several stories within the same footprint. Red’s could look more like a lighthouse (equally iconic as Red’s shack), but those lobster roll assemblers could employ a spiral staircase sort of operation where a mouthwatering roll would drop out of a chute every 10 seconds to a waiting customer.
My mind raced with possible fixes to the Red’s Eats conundrum as I drove away from Wiscasset. There must be a way, in 2017, to shorten that line, or erase it completely, I thought. If there’s a will there’s a way, right? I know the Maine Department of Transportation is seeking a fix to the traffic flow through downtown Wiscasset, and a faster lobster roll delivery system at Red’s may be the key.
But then I remembered where I live and that Maine isn’t New York or Massachusetts, with their big digs or skyscraper land-use efficiency. Maybe this is just the way Maine should be and must be. Red’s is popular and maybe changing a good thing would be bad. Maybe customers actually enjoy waiting for something good to come along. They are willing to wait, just feet from smelly and noisy vehicles, because the product is so iconic and tasty.
Maybe faster production, especially in a place called Vacationland, isn’t always better production.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.