By Donald Wittkowski
The Lobster Loft restaurant, the venerable bayside eatery and one of the landmark buildings in Sea Isle City’s historic Fish Alley neighborhood, is on the market for $2.5 million, its owner confirmed.
Businessman James Bennett, who has owned the Lobster Loft since 2006, said the restaurant on 42nd Place will remain open while he looks for a buyer.
In an interview Tuesday, Bennett said he is in no hurry to sell and may raise the $2.5 million asking price for the restaurant and its liquor license.
“Right now, property values are in pretty good shape,” he said of Sea Isle’s robust real estate market. “There’s also a lot of value with the liquor license.”
Known for its iconic, giant red lobster emblem on the entrance, the Lobster Loft overlooks the lagoon in the heart of Fish Alley, an enclave of family-owned restaurants and fishing boats rooted in Sea Isle’s early history as a small commercial seaport.
Bennett, who also owns the LaCosta Lounge in Sea Isle, said he is selling the Lobster Loft because he has “a lot of irons in the fire.”
“With those two businesses going full speed in the summer, it’s an awfully labor-intensive operation,” he said.
Bennett plans to keep ownership of the LaCosta, a bar and nightclub that serves as the entertainment hub for Sea Isle’s popular Polar Bear Weekend festivities held each February. This year’s Polar Bear celebration will unfold on Feb. 16-18, highlighted by a weekend of partying and a madcap plunge in the chilly ocean on Saturday, Feb. 17.
The Lobster Loft’s sale, meanwhile, has generated a great deal of attention in town, in part because of the possibility that the property might be redeveloped, said Mike McHale, a former Sea Isle mayor.
“Everybody’s talking about,” he said. “It’s been big news for about a month, now that it’s up for sale.
McHale, who is a trustee with the Sea Isle City Historical Museum, said the building that houses the Lobster Loft originally served as a warehouse for the commercial fishing industry decades ago. A 2011 story in The Press of Atlantic City said the building dates to 1910.
McHale said the Lobster Loft’s prime bayside location may make it a candidate for redevelopment. Zoning laws would allow for a mix-use development blending commercial and residential construction on the property, he noted.
“Whoever does buy it, can put condos on top,” McHale said.
A listing for the Lobster Loft on the commercial real estate website LoopNet mentions the possibility of a combination condo-restaurant project being developed on the site. The listing says plans are available for a proposed waterfront restaurant and bar, eight boat slips and eight condos in a three-story complex.
LoopNet touts the Lobster Loft as a “shore tradition” that has “established brand recognition.” In its current iteration, the restaurant includes seating for 185 people on the first floor and another 100 seats on the second floor. There is additional outdoor seating, along with four boat slips, according to the listing.
If it was redeveloped, the Lobster Loft would be the latest local establishment to capitalize on a 2008 change in Sea Isle’s zoning law that allows businesses to rebuild commercial properties while adding more residential space.
The idea behind the zoning change was to encourage businesses to stay put in town, instead of seeing them disappear to make room for even more housing. The mixed-use projects include commercial establishments such as bars, restaurants and retail shops operating on the street level, while the top floors feature condos or apartments.
The Springfield Inn, the legendary, no-frills bar and nightclub that has been part of Sea Isle’s entertainment scene since the 1970s, may be redeveloped into a mixed-use project capitalizing on its beachfront location.
The Springfield’s owners have proposed demolishing the old building at 43rd Street and Pleasure Avenue to make room for a new development that would include a beachfront bar, restaurant and condos in a four-story complex, according to city planning documents.
Aided by the 2008 zoning law change, the Townsends Inlet section in the southern tip of Sea Isle has been undergoing a retail, restaurant and residential rebirth led by development partners Christopher Glancey and Bob Morris.
In 2016, Glancey and Morris celebrated the grand opening of the trendy Dunes restaurant, banquet and condo complex on Landis Avenue between 86th and 87th streets.
Glancey and Morris are currently developing two other projects on Landis Avenue, near the Dunes, that will combine upscale retail, restaurant and condo space. A Blitz’s grocery market, scheduled to open this spring, will be the commercial anchor of one of the buildings.