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Crazy for crustaceans

Monstah Lobstah, owned by a Maine native, offers the state's most famous seafood to Florida.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


CARROLLWOOD -- Growing up in Biddeford, Maine, Allen Berube was just a kid adamant about not working in his dad's construction company.

"I can't stand construction," said Berube, 28. "I hate the winters in Maine. So cold."

After high school, he took a job painting cars. For fun, he flew south to sunny Florida and Ybor City.

His Tampa friends always had one request: Bring lobsters.

That got Berube thinking.

Today, he owns Monstah Lobstah take-out restaurants in Carrollwood and South Tampa. Customers order lobsters by phone, then pick them up like Chinese food.

Don't expect to find them swimming in a sterile grocery store tank. Berube's lobsters live their last days in a big, saltwater pond, with jagged rocks along the rim, a waterfall and lighthouse painted on a back wall.

"I want to take him home and put him in my swimming pool," says Paula Caire, pointing to a lobster in the Bay to Bay Boulevard store.

Berube says that's ill-advised.

"You could put him in a swimming pool, but he will die."

Berube dunks his hand into the tank and pulls out an 11-pounder.

"Wow," Caire says, stepping back.

The oversized crustacean wiggles its taped claws and antennas, like a pinwheel, and curls its armoured tail.

"This is what you call a lobster stud," he says in a thick New England accent.

Monstah Lobstah man ought to know.

Shops like his dot his native rocky Maine landscape. In Tampa, Berube swims against the tide.

Tampa is miles from Maine in many ways.

He learned that the first week, when he opened in Carrollwood two years ago. He sold lobsters live. Customers cringed.

"You want us to cook it ourselves?" they squealed.

"I'm not taking that thing home alive!"

And so, in Week Two, Berube boiled the orders, until the brown shells turned red.

To grab lunch business, he added to his menu: lobster rolls (lobster and mayonnaise on a hoagie), chowder (his dad's recipe), fried clams and other seafood dishes.

And he looked to expand. His Carrollwood store, only 550 square feet, has no seating. He opened a second location, with room for chairs, in the Bay-to-Bay Centre in July last year.

Berube goes heavy on the New England charm. His menu includes a "Maine-iac Dictionary."

Chowdah -- Chowder.

Wintah -- Winter.

The shop has a down-home feel with wooden tables, bar stools and a freezer for soft drinks. Customers can bring their own beer. His employees are his old buddies. Tom Michaud, a childhood friend from Maine. Nick Dillon, his pal from Ybor days.

Already, the restaurant is attracting regulars, like Jim and Virginia West, who come from Wesley Chapel every week.

"We love lobster," Mrs. West said. "This reminds us of Connecticut."

Berube buys his lobsters from Little Bay Lobster distributing company. He picks them up most mornings from Delta Air Cargo at Tampa International Airport. They come packed in a padded box.

Eventually, Berube wants to open a warehouse in Maine specifically for Monstah Lobstah.

"It's like McDonald's having their own cows," he said.

He might even pursue more stores. You'll find his Carrollwood business at 10225 N Dale Mabry Blvd.

"Every time I go some place, I talk about Monstah Lobstah," he says. "I go to the grocery store and bump into someone buying a lobster. I tell them about Monstah Lobstah. My girlfriend hates it. She says, 'You are not talking about Monstah Lobstah today.' "

-- Babita Persaud can be reached at 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com.

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