MARBLEHEAD – It’s an overcast, damp and chilly Friday. Within 15 minutes, three customers duck into Marblehead’s Little Harbor Lobster Company.
The first is Michelle Phillips. She wants a lobster roll to go, for her dad. He’s recovering from a knee replacement and called her this morning, craving a roll.
Upstairs, where the kitchen staff makes chowder, fish cakes and other house specialties, the resident foodies get to work.
In a skillet, they toast a buttered roll from A&J King Artisan Bakers in Salem and load it with 1/3 pound of fresh lobster meat tossed in a metal bowl with a little mayo and a sprinkling of pepper.
Little Harbor’s latest lobsters arrived early in the morning, hauled from offshore traps by co-owner Tim O’Keefe on his boat, the Lori’O.
O’Keefe, 42, has been fishing since he was 14, and helps to supply the market with his catch. He also hauls 800 traps. In addition, Little Harbor buys lobster from several local boats.
They sell oysters they get from Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury and scallops from local diver Ray Bates. There’s a waiting list for Bates’ scallops, and people have been calling to see when he next plans to go out, says O’Keefe’s wife, Laura.
Bates’ scallops are so fresh they smell like the ocean, she says.
Little Harbor also sells clams, shrimp, mussels and an array of fresh fish from salmon to haddock, buying it from trusted sources at the South Boston Fish Pier.
The shop tempts customers with a catch of the week, too, oftentimes a locally sourced, underused fish such as skate (wing) or monkfish. This past week, the catch was soft-shell crabs, a seasonal offering.
Sustainable fishing — making sure they support conservation and treat fishermen fairly — is a key practice for Little Harbor, formerly the Marblehead Lobster Company.
It’s a complex operation with both retail and wholesale sides, says Bryn Brewin, a co-owner with her husband, Andrew.
The business supplies several North Shore restaurants with lobsters. The owners also ship lobsters to wherever people want them. In a busy week, they sell thousands of pounds of lobster, between all the operations.
Two years ago, the Brewins and the O’Keefes made Little Harbor Lobster their livelihood.
The men — Tim O’Keefe is from Nahant and Andrew Brewin from Swampscott — are friends and know each other from their days attending Swampscott High School and working at Ryan Marine Services in Marblehead.
Andrew is a builder. His woodworking skills have come in handy at Little Harbor, where the couples are rebuilding the operation.
“We had to gut the whole place,” Bryn Brewin says.
Earlier, they installed new electric and plumbing services. This summer, they are redoing the exterior, including installing new windows and doors.
Each partner has a specialty — fishing, building, food and business. Together, they form a crew, working for a common goal, returning the waterfront business to its earlier prominence.
To get there, they are focusing on fresh products, sustainable practices, a sense of history and new ideas.
Laura O’Keefe says the heyday for the business was when it was owned by Hugh Bishop and his sister, Brenda, from 1979 to 1995.
Bishop, 82, was a fisherman; he started at age 12. He’s still a fisherman.
A day earlier, in his front yard, just down the street from the shop, Bishop recalled how he and his sister worked constantly to make the Marblehead Lobster Company a “going machine.” They innovated, as well, introducing the shipment of lobsters by plane. While he talks, Bishop repairs a lobster trap, weaving twine around chafed netting at a head, the place where a lobster crawls into the trap.
The original owner of the business was a fellow named Rene Barber. He worked aboard President Calvin Coolidge’s yacht. The president and his wife were living nearby, their summer White House based in Swampscott in 1925.
Barber fell in love with a local girl, Bishop says, and they made Marblehead their home, where they built the lobster business, Barber’s Lobster Pool. After Barber died, his wife’s family ran the business.
Bishop bought the building at auction in the late 1970s and remained interested in it long after he sold the business in the mid-’90s.
He got to know Tim O’Keefe five years ago while the young man was working on his lobster boat. Bishop urged O’Keefe to keep an eye on the lobster business at 3 Beacon St. in case it came up for sale.
Laura O’Keefe says she and her husband and the Brewins are forever grateful to Bishop for introducing them to the shop.
A singular flavor
Downstairs at the retail counter, Phillips chats with Bryn Brewin and Kelly O’Keefe, Tim’s sister, as her lobster roll is readied.
Phillips is excited to learn Little Harbor will unveil a water-taxi service this summer, delivering freshly made lobster rolls in their Boston Whaler skiff to the sailboats and powerboats that anchor nearby.
She asks if they’ll deliver fresh lobster meat, too, and Bryn says they will.
“Oh, sweet, I can’t wait,” Phillips says.
She likes to make lobster rolls to enjoy aboard her and her husband’s boat for their day trips to Sand Dollar Cove in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
The next customer comes in for soft-shell crabs. He buys eight of them. They are bound for his frying pan, with a little flour sprinkled on them.
Out back, employee Kevin Wolff, known as “Wolffy,” grades the lobsters that O’Keefe caught the night before. Wolff divides the hard shells from the soft shells; separates the culls (with one claw); and segregates the lobsters by weight: chix (1-pound chicken lobsters), quarters (1.25 pounds.), halves (1.5 pounds), and selects (1.75 pounds and up).
He works among big tanks in which fresh, filtered seawater circulates each day. The water cycles out by overflowing onto the wooden floor and draining through.
Little Harbor is a year-round business. The shop has seven regular employees, plus the four owners, and hires extra help during the summer.
Lobstering is unpredictable, dependent especially on the weather. Also, you never know what is going to come up in a trap.
A week earlier, Tim hauled in a rare blue lobster. Even rarer, it was white-colored below the tail and body. The blue lobster was in rough shape. Wolff brought it back to health, hand- feeding it crushed haddock.
The lobster is not for sale; it’s become Little Harbor’s mascot. Wolff has even nicknamed it — My Boy Blue.
“He’s staying, it’s too rare,” Wolff says. “Hopefully, he will stay for a long time.”
A year or so earlier, O’Keefe caught an even rarer calico lobster. It is living out its life at the Marine Science Center run by Northeastern University in Nahant.
O’Keefe loves lobstering.
“It is kind of like exploring,” he says. “Trying new stuff. Everything is different. Fishing is never the same. It doesn’t get boring, for whatever reason I don’t know.”
Customers come to Little Harbor Lobster for the product first, but perhaps also for the history, the sense of place.
The business sits to the left at the end of a short lane, a driveway-like entrance with its sides flanked by wooden lobster traps.
To the right, behind unruly bushes and above an ivy-shrouded stone wall, hide more traps, a few bearing empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.
To the left, traps stand in the open, stacked high and fronting lobster shanties in which fishermen have stowed and repaired gear for generations.
Straight ahead lies the boat launch, sliding into the harbor, where gulls circle and squawk and lobster boats rock at moorings.
The third customer to arrive in this 15-minute span is Susan Gessner of Marblehead.
She likes the improvements the couples are making.
She buys cod for dinner.
“Bake it at 350?” she asks.
Yes, answers Kelly O’Keefe, for 20 minutes.
O’Keefe says she cooks her cod with a little lemon and butter and a light topping.
Gessner exits under the handcarved, wooden “golden cod” that adorns the wall near the door.
Fishing has been part of Marblehead’s culture from the beginning. And Native Americans fished these waters for thousands of years before.
Little Harbor aims to continue the tradition.
This story was first published in Marblehead Home and Style magazine.