When it comes to “idyllic Maine lunches,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a more storybook spot than Fort Williams Park, located in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. On any given summertime afternoon, you’ll find rolling, grassy hills dotted with families perched on blankets, a cool onshore ocean breeze, salty, cold surf smashing against craggy chunks of granite, and one of the most iconic lighthouses in all of Maine. But those aren’t the only reasons to visit; in the summer months, it’s also where you’ll find the legendary Bite Into Maine food truck.
Now entering its seventh season, Bite Into Maine is owned and operated by Sarah and Karl Sutton, whose tiny 8×10 foot, single-location seasonal concession trailer has quickly grown into a miniature empire, with two locations, and a wintertime commissary kitchen and restaurant that keeps the couple busy (and profitable!) all year long.
Their classic lobster roll (and five creative variations, including lobster rolls spiked with wasabi or Indian curry) has quickly established itself as the de facto preparation for how lobster rolls are done in Maine, and have been included on virtually every “best of” list to grace the internet (including mentions in USA Today, The Food Network, Food & Wine, Gourmet, and The Travel Channel), in the last several years.
We had a chance to sit down with Sarah, to learn more about her business, what motivates her, and what keeps her arriving to unlock the trailer bright eyed and bushy-tailed, each and every morning. And perhaps most exciting of all? She shared her recipe for classic Maine lobster rolls, for you to cook at home.
Bite into Maine
3x locations: 185 US Route One Scarborough, ME | Fort Williams Park Cape Elizabeth, ME | Allagash Brewery, Portland ME
Hours of Operation: Currently Tues- Sat 11:30-7, Sun 11-4.
Hours change when in season and additional locations are open.
Number of employees: 6-25, depending on season
Question: Tell me a little bit about your food background. What developed your interest in cooking, and when did you decide to pursue it full-time?
Sarah: I have always loved cooking, and grew up in a good Midwest family that had a one-acre garden, and who got all of our meat from my aunt’s farm. We were well-versed in canning and preserving.
I went to art school, and only started working in restaurants part-time as a means to make ends meet while living in Minneapolis. I have absolutely no formal training in cooking. I worked in photography for many years, and had aspirations to become a food stylist.
After a trip to Austin, TX for South by Southwest in 2009, we became extremely inspired by the food truck and food cart scene there, and had a determination to bring it Portland, Maine. We had an idea for a lobster roll food truck from the beginning.
In 2011, we won a permit to operate in Fort Williams Park for the summer, and and were hooked from that moment on.
Q: What made you decide to pursue your concept in a food truck, as opposed to a brick-and-mortar restaurant?
S: We initially thought running a food truck would be something fun to do in the summer, which of course it was. But we realized soon into the process that we were not going to run it casually, as a lemonade stand, and put all of our resources behind it to make it a sustainable business.
We run our trucks in set locations, as if we are a brick-and-mortar. We discovered early on in our business that lobster rolls, which are not cheap, are not an “impulse buy” food. Instead, we worked on running consistent hours, rain or shine, and becoming a destination.
Running a food truck helped us learn and make mistakes, and hone our menu on a much smaller risk level. Even if we had wanted to open a full scale brick and mortar in the beginning, it was not financially feasible for us.
“In a food truck, not only can customers see you preparing their food, but you can watch them enjoy it and they give you direct feedback.”
Q: What aspect of running a food truck do you find most personally satisfying, and why?
S: First and most important would be the direct contact with our customers. In restaurants, a lot of chefs are behind the scenes. In a food truck, not only can customers see you preparing their food, but you can watch them enjoy it and they give you direct feedback.
It has been incredible to interact with locals who have been coming to us since the beginning, or visitors who come once a year on vacation. We get to experience people telling us how excited they are for their food each and every day. It is an honor to make people happy.
But honestly, I really really like people telling us that we are THE BEST. It is something that I aspire to each day.
Q: What are some of the most challenging aspects of this business that you may not have expected?
S: The physicality of hitching and unhitching a cart each day, and the price of lobster, are two of the biggest challenges.
However, as we grow, it has been an incredible experience finding great employees who are bring a new level of excitement and dedication to what we do. Graduating from being the person who made every single lobster roll to instead hiring, training, and relying on others to maintain our quality standards has been a progression that is not always easy. It was really hard to trust and empower others to do it in the beginning. But, we could never have grown if we didn’t make that leap.
Q: How do you handle the seasonal aspects of your business? What do you do to fill your time during the winter?
S: Each year has been a progression. For the first few years, we hunkered down and worked seasonal jobs in the winter. One year, we tried operating a ski resort during the winter, and now in year seven, we have opened a small takeout at our commissary kitchen and are now open year round.
It wasn’t until this year, that we really invested in year-round full-time employees, and having a place open year round to work was extremely important. In addition, the down time gives them time to work on all of the manuals and training materials that we don’t have time to concentrate on during peak season.
Q: What is your absolute favorite thing to cook, and why? (It doesn’t have to be an item from your menu.)
S: My mom’s poppyseed torte recipe. It has a lot of memories from my childhood, and every celebration we had as a family. Plus, it’s so unique that it always surprises people when they try it for the first time. It has a buttery graham cracker crust with a creamy custardy poppyseed filling and whipped cream. I like to say it’s like biting into a cloud.
Q: What is the weirdest/funniest/most surprising thing you’ve ever heard one of your customers say?
S: Sexual references are always good. “Best thing I have ever had my mouth,” orgasmic, better than sex, etc.
However, the most surprising thing was when we started to have customers who came to us because of us, and not because we are located by one of the most famous lighthouses in the world. Super surprising to hear customers say “Wow, that ‘s a really cool looking lighthouse, what is it?”
“Lastly, a goal from the beginning, and hopefully one we will attain in the next five years? Feed Martha Stewart a lobster roll.”
Q: How do you see your business growing and evolving over the next five years?
S: We hope to spend the next few years shoring up the business. Making the work environment great for all of our employees, as well as our customers. Really working on the business end of things. Our goal in the end is to purchase a building for our commissary takeout and trucks. Expanding to online sales, with more branded merchandise and lobster sales.
Lastly, a goal from the beginning, and hopefully one we will attain in the next five years? Feed Martha Stewart a lobster roll.
Q: Tell us about the recipe that you’ve chosen for our readers to recreate. What is special about it, and why should readers learn how to make it?
S: Our “Maine-Style” is our take on the classic Maine lobster roll.
We only use fresh-baked bread, real butter, and only fresh Maine lobster in our rolls. With the Maine style, we mix the chilled lobster meat with mayonnaise (we prefer extra heavy – see note on recipe) and the ever controversial chives. Chives add a subtle onion flavor to the roll, and frankly, look so damn pretty.
The key is to eat while the bread is still warm and crispy, to get the contrast with the cool creamy lobster. Add a squeeze of lemon to add even another dimension of flavor.
If I were making this for myself? I would do extra chives, a side of butter, and a minimum of 10 napkins.
Classic Maine-Style Lobster Rolls
- 1 pound cooked Maine lobster meat chilled
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise, extra heavy
- 2 tbsp butter, melted
- 4 New England-style hot dog rolls
- 2 tbsp fresh chives, minced
- 1/2 lemon, cut into 4 wedges
- Cut and tear the lobster meat into large chunks, closely checking for bits of shell. Keep the claws as intact as possible for the best presentation.
- In a large bowl, use a spatula to mix the lobster meat with the mayonnaise, coating evenly. The more chilled the mayonnaise, the better it will coat.
- Heat a skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Using a pastry brush, liberally brush the melted butter on both sides of the hot dog rolls and place in the skillet. Toast each side to a golden brown color, using more butter as needed.
- Fill each roll with about 4 ounces of the lobster mixture. Sprinkle the tops with chives. Serve with a lemon wedge, which can also be squeezed on top.
- Serve immediately–the goal is to serve when you still have a warm, buttery roll with the cool creamy lobster meat. Enjoyed best with a view of the ocean.