High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

The House that Lobsters Built

We are happy to report that The Lobster House is again open following Superstorm Sandy!

We were dock rats,” said Donna Laudeman, hostess at The Lobster House, remembering her childhood, and that of her brother Keith’s, growing up in the family’s fish and restaurant business at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The party boats draw crowds of fishermen as well as spectators at Schellenger’s Landing in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Laudeman family

“Keith and I grew up down on the docks,” she said. “We caught sea bass and eels, swam in the crick, and helped Essie in the kitchen. She was the prep girl – the prep woman, really, she was an older lady, at least to us. Essie was the kindest woman. She always took the time to let us help. She let us slice the hardboiled eggs.”

They also learned valuable skills that helped them prepare for the future roles they would play in the family-owned company – The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company and The Lobster House.

“I remember us walking into the kitchen at the restaurant when we were seven or eight,” Donna recalled. “It was like home to us. The smell of lobsters steaming and clams made you feel so good.”

Commercial fishing boats crowd the docks along what is now Fisherman’s Wharf in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of The Lobster House

A few of the children’s other pursuits were more adventurous, however, and, on one occasion, at least, caused their parents some concern. The youngsters’ favorite fishing hole was off of the floating dock in front of the restaurant, where the schooner is moored today.

“We were fishing off the dock and I was casting my line and tripped over one of the cleats,” Donna said. “I went in but Keith grabbed my hand. I can remember him saying, though, ‘Don’t drop that rod.’”

The Lobster House docks begin to change the landscape on the waterfront by 1950. Photo courtesy of the Laudeman family

Their parents, Wally and Marijane Laudeman, insisted they take swimming lessons every summer after that. Like many residents, they learned to swim at the Christian Admiral pool under Lifeguard Captain Clete Cannone.

“It was all fun,” remembered Keith. “Imagine growing up in Cape May and your father owns a dock. How much better does it get than that?”

Today, the “dock rats” have become more the “masters” of the Fisherman’s Wharf docks. Keith Laudeman is now the president of The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company, a job he took over from his father, and Donna is the hostess at The Lobster House, the same job her mother held.

The Lobster House docks today

The family business has prospered under the brother-and-sister team. Today, the operation includes the packing and shipping plant, fish market and take-out, fishing fleet, gift shop, office, and two restaurants – The Lobster House and Raw Bar.

While sales figures are not published, The Lobster House ranks among the top 50 privately owned restaurants in the country. Over the years, it has become a revered landmark for locals, trusted standby for residents, and huge draw for people visiting the Jersey shore.

While secondary to tourism, seafood is big business in South Jersey, and still growing. Commercial fishing boats off-load more seafood in Cape May than in any other East Coast port except Bedford, Massachusetts. Roughly 11 million pounds of seafood are packed out, or unloaded, at Fisherman’s Wharf docks annually. That includes about 500,000 pounds of lobster and approximately three million pounds of sea scallops.

“We’re mainly in the scallop business,” Keith explained.

Fresh scallops being unloaded

A former scallop fisherman, Keith added a fleet of scallop boats to the business to meet a growing demand. The company also buys fresh catch from independent fishing boats. Keith’s younger brother Randy owns a boat and is one of the company’s suppliers.

The operation needs large quantities of ice to provision its scallop fleet and pack its product in, so it makes ice at an ice plant located at the far end of the dock.

“We produce about 50 tons of ice a day, which go to the boats,” Keith said. “One boat needs about 30 tons.”

The company packs and sells its seafood to processors and exporters worldwide. While much of its product stays in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, a lot travels to Europe. France is particularly fond of the Cape May scallops.

The scallop business has become a lot bigger, according to Keith. For a while, the government restricted fishing activity, but now things have improved.

Keith and Donna are the fourth generation in their family to make waves in the fishing industry. Their great-grandfather, Cap Johnson, owned a number of party fishing boats in the 1920s and ‘30s, one of which he named after his daughter, the Vaud J. Vaud went on to marry Jess Laudeman, founder of The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company.

Born in Philadelphia in 1898, Jess moved to Wildwood in 1926 to start a wholesale fish business. Initially, he operated out of Ottens Harbor in Wildwood. A few years later, he moved to Two Mile Landing, and, finally, in 1939, he relocated to nearby Schellenger’s Landing on land he bought from the Reading Railroad. Today, that property has come to be better known as Fisherman’s Wharf or The Lobster House docks.

The Vaud J. party boat. Captain johnson named this boat after his daughter Vaud, who later married Jess Laudeman.

Starting in the 1920s, commercial and recreational fishing in South Jersey took off. As interest grew, new facilities were built at Schellenger’s Landing and other sites nearby to accommodate the increased boating and visitor traffic. Betting on a new market, the Reading Railroad laid new tracks and ran a “Fisherman’s Special” train between Philadelphia, Schellenger’s Landing and Two Mile Landing. Suddenly, not only did area party boats have much bigger parties of fisherman but Cape May’s wholesale fishing companies had a game-changing express delivery service to an important urban market.

By the mid 1940s, The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company had become what was then the largest seafood packager in the country. Jess also had taken on George Reading, of the Reading Railroad, as a business partner.

Bateman’s was a small restaurant on the Schellenger’s Landing lot when Jess bought the property. For many years, he leased it out while he built the wholesale fish business.

Vaud Johnson’s family enjoys a day on the water. Photo courtesy of The Lobster House

Jess and Vaud took the restaurant back in 1955, and turned it over to their son Wally, who had just gotten out of the Coast Guard and begun working in the company’s commercial fishing operation.

“My mother told me my grandfather said to my Dad, ‘Here are the keys [to the restaurant]; do something with it,’” Donna said. One of the first things her parents did was rename it The Lobster House.

“We didn’t know anything about the restaurant business,” remembered Marijane Laudeman, Keith and Donna’s mother. “That first year we had six booths with fake red leather seats, five or six tables and a counter that probably seated 12.”

“My parents really started The Lobster House,” Donna said, “They worked very, very hard. Both Mom and my Dad decorated the place. Mom shopped for antiques and, when I was older, I’d go to New York with her to shop.”

Her parents also collaborated on the signature red, white and blue sailor uniforms that the restaurant’s waitresses wear. The wait staff has worn the same outfits since The Lobster House opened.

Today, the restaurant seats 550 people, nearly 10 times the seating capacity of Bateman’s, the property’s original eatery.

The Lobster House’s dining room with its iconic checkered tablecloths

Over the years, family members have developed their own shorthand when talking about the business.

“My Dad never said, ‘I’m going to the restaurant,’” Donna recalled. “He always said he was going to the dock. To this day, Keith and I say – and I say to my children – I’ll be at the dock.’”

Wally took over the Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company, which included The Lobster House, when his father died in 1959. By then, the business consisted of the wholesale fish operation, Fisherman’s Wharf property, fish market and restaurant.

Wally ran the company for nearly 45 years, during which he added features that popularized the restaurant and helped define the business. One addition changed the landscape completely. In 1965, Wally decided to buy a fishing schooner to use as a floating cocktail lounge in the front of the restaurant. He invited Keith and Donna along on a shopping trip, where he found one.

“Keith and I flew up to Nova Scotia with Dad,” Donna recalled. “The boat was up on a railway. It was a working fishing schooner and there were mugs lying around like its crew had just left.”

The schooner, renamed the Schooner American, proved to be a popular addition to the restaurant and waterfront. The company now has a third Schooner American in its place, which was custom built much closer to home, in Tuckahoe, by Yank Marine in 2001.

Wally also added the seafood take-out in 1970 and Raw Bar in 1985. Both offerings have added versatility and appeal to the company’s restaurant operations.

The Schooner American, a cocktail lounge

Keith joined the family business full time in 1981, and worked for his father. He took over when his father died in 2004. Like his father, Keith expanded the business, adding the scallop fleet and buying Tony’s Marine Railway last year.

“Keith has stepped into Dad’s shoes really well,” Donna said. “I look up to him, almost like a Dad.”

Both Keith and Donna held a series of jobs in the company before coming aboard fulltime in their 20s. Keith sold fish, washed dishes and scrubbed the decks of the schooner. Donna worked as a set-up girl in the restaurant and sales clerk in the gift shop, but her favorite job was working on the schooner.

“When I turned 18, I was a cocktail waitress and bartender on the schooner. It was the best job of my life. We had a blast,” she said, so much so, that her father brought her inside to work as a hostess at the desk, the job she holds today.

The Raw Bar

“‘This is where I need you,’ my Dad told me. “ ‘You’re the face of the restaurant. People want to see a Laudeman,’ That made me feel really good,” she said.

Wally often stood next to his daughter at the desk, an image that has sunk deeply into her memories of him.

“My Dad always wore cashmere sweaters,” she said. “I know it sounds strange, but sometimes I smell cashmere and I know it’s him.”

Aside from providing their son and daughter with effective on-the-job training, Wally and Marijane Laudeman instilled a strong work ethic and an unwavering commitment to customer service in their offspring.

“My job is to make sure everyone leaves the restaurant happy,” Keith said.

Donna strives to create a warm and inviting atmosphere at the restaurant like she is welcoming people to her home.

Photograph courtesy of The Lobster House by Meacreations

“My Mom taught me how important it is to be nice, have fun and laugh with our guests,” she said. “I laugh a lot at work.”

The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company and The Lobster House are icons in Cape May today, as a successful commercial business and a progressive family enterprise. Part of the company’s future was not always as certain, though.

Marijane Laudeman remembers a momentous night in 1955, when The Lobster House was less than a year old.

“I was closing up that night and counting out the money in the cash drawer; we only took cash then,” she explained. “Suddenly I realized we had $500 dollars in the cash drawer. That was a lot of money back then. It was thrilling! I remember thinking, ‘You know what? For two people who know nothing about running a restaurant, we just might make this work.’”

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Cape May Magazine.