It was a trip to Maine that changed Susan Povich’s life. The once-upon-a-time attorney agreed to her husband’s idea of opening a lobster pound in their Red Hook, Brooklyn neighborhood — and the rest is a foodie’s fantasy. Red Hook Lobster Pound serves some of the best lobster rolls in the country (No, really, their business has won awards, like the “Best Food Truck in America” in 2013.) Oh, and Susan just happens to be the daughter of iconic talk show host Maury Povich. We spoke to her about her starting a business with her husband, what it was like to switch careers to focus on culinary arts, and why she believes she put the state of Connecticut on the map.
Susan, how did Red Hook Lobster Pound come to be?
It’s such a crazy story. We’ve been living in Red Hook, Brooklyn for about 10 years and we bought a commercial building on Van Brunt Street which is on the main strip in Red Hook. We wanted to build some apartments on top and rent them out, but the loans were going to be way too high to make it worth our while.
We went up to Maine to see my family on Thanksgiving. So we stopped to see some friends of mine who had a fishing boat and we brought the lobsters back to Brooklyn. It was a five-hour drive and we brought 20 pounds of lobster; it was amazing. My husband turned to me and said, “Let’s open a lobster pound out of that building in Red Hook.” I said, “Honey, you’re absolutely out of your mind.” [laughs] I went to sleep and woke up the next day and said, “No, honey, you’re brilliant! We’re going to do this and I’m going to sell lobster rolls.”
Yes, my family is from Maine, and I actually went to culinary school. I’ve eaten many lobster rolls. There were many late nights when my husband and children would come into the kitchen, and I was covered in mayonnaise. My husband said, “Susan, I think you’ve made over 250 pounds of mayonnaise,” and I said, “But it’s not right yet!”
Lobster rolls are all about the best lobster which we spent a long time sourcing. It also needs great bread, which we bring down from Maine and great mayo or butter. We were the first people selling lobster rolls out of a truck on the street in June 2009 before anyone else was doing it.
It’s amazing that with all the food trucks out there that Red Hook Lobster Pound is number one in the country.
Yeah, I do kind of feel like Miss America. I do know that next June there will be a different number one. I do feel like I have to pass the torch down to the next number one. Being the best in the country is a combination of having the best food and a great relationship with our customers. Food trucks aren’t just about the food; they’re about activating an urban area, and giving a great, authentic experience. We always focus on what we do and not get too big or broad with our menu. We keep it simple although we have expanded it over the years. We’re opening a place in Manhattan where I’m going to be expanding the menu a little bit. I’d like to do some Maine-style breakfasts; I was just making some blueberry pancakes this morning, much to my kids’ happiness. We’re going to add a breakfast service to our store in Montauk. So we are expanding a little bit without getting too complicated. I still keep my eye on the prize.
I think it’s so fascinating that you studied law and you’ve now gone through this reinvention to create Red Hook Lobster Pound.
I went to law school, and I clerked in the 2nd circuit. I worked in a big law firm for 18 months. I quit and went to culinary school. I worked in restaurants for a long time and I opened a restaurant but I realized that I didn’t really want to do that. I was much more passionate about cooking for my friends and family. And I went back to being a lawyer; I had a very successful legal career for 15 years. It’s definitely passion because I love people and my husband loves people. I mean, he is the king of Red Hook! He talks to every person who comes in; he gets such joy out of it. I love feeding people and this was a way of mixing those two things.
It sounds like you have a really nice mix of all the things you love.
My husband and I work together and live together, so it’s pretty much business 24/7. There’s a joke in my family that if our kids know your name, you’re about to get fired because that means we’ve argued about you at the dinner table way too much! And if everything is going well, they don’t know who you are! [laughs]
So how do you balance the business while being the mom of two kids?
Not very well! I think it’s good for kids to see how hard parents work. It’s good for my kids to understand that I’m not an investment banker; that Mom and Daddy make something, we sell it, and people give us money. It’s good for them to understand all the parts of the business. We’re also very involved parents. As the business has grown, we’re starting to invest in overall managers to help us grow but also give us some time back. But when you have a small business, every $50,000 that goes out to a salary is $50,000 that doesn’t come back to us. So we have to grow it slowly.
And for those who haven’t tried it yet, what is Red Hook Lobster Pound’s signature lobster roll?
We serve the traditional Maine-style lobster roll, which is claw and knuckle meat, with mayonnaise on a bed of lettuce. When we did open, I did know that there were a whole lot of people who like lobster with butter. So I did a bunch of research and came up with what we call The Connecticut Roll which is just hot lobster and butter, which was a favorite in Connecticut. Ever since that, every lobster restaurant in the entire country now has the Connecticut Roll. So I helped put Connecticut on the map.