By Donald Wittkowski
The venerable Lobster Loft restaurant in Sea Isle City is no longer up for sale, but it will be getting a new name and makeover as part of a rebranding for the summer season.
James Bennett, who has owned the Lobster Loft since 2006, plans to transform the waterfront eatery into a pub-style restaurant that will make its debut on Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re going to give it a facelift,” Bennett said in an interview.
The restaurant had been on the market for $2.5 million, but Bennett has changed his mind about selling it and will continue to be the owner.
“I like the business. I enjoy the business. I enjoy being with the people who come in to patronize the restaurant,” he said of his decision to keep the Lobster Loft.
The Lobster Loft’s new name will be revealed after it is copyrighted. The rebranding plan includes giving the interior an “entirely new look” for the pub-style restaurant, Bennett said.
Although the outside of the two-story building will remain largely the same, the iconic, giant red lobster that decorates the restaurant’s entrance will come down, Bennett said.
The Lobster Loft overlooks a lagoon on 42nd Place in the heart of the Fish Alley neighborhood, an enclave of family-owned restaurants and fishing boats rooted in Sea Isle’s early history as a small commercial seaport.
Mike McHale, 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. The building dates to 1910, according to a 2011 story in The Press of Atlantic City.
McHale, a former Sea Isle mayor, said Lobster Loft’s prime bayside location makes it a strong candidate for redevelopment. The city’s zoning laws would allow for a mixed-use development blending a restaurant on the first floor and condominiums on the top, he noted.
When the Lobster Loft was up for sale, a listing on the commercial real estate website LoopNet mentioned the possibility of a combination condo-restaurant project being developed on the site. The listing said plans are available for a proposed waterfront restaurant and bar, eight boat slips and eight condos in a three-story complex.
Bennett confirmed he had been in talks to possibly sell the Lobster Loft to local real estate developer Christopher Glancey, who is also the president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization. Glancey, though, will not be buying the Lobster Loft.
In the past two years, Glancey and his development partners have spent millions of dollars to build projects in Sea Isle’s Townsends Inlet section that combine restaurants, retail and other commercial construction on the first floor with upscale condos on the top two stories.
Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant on Park Road in Fish Alley, said many local residents and tourists had told him that they were “very upset and sad” about the possibility of the Lobster Loft being sold.
“People enjoy the atmosphere, as well as the fine, fresh seafood there,” Monichetti said of the Lobster Loft. “The entertainment also has a big following.”
LoopNet touted 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 LoopNet.
Bennett had considered selling Lobster Loft because he has “a lot of irons in the fire.” He also owns the LaCosta Lounge, a bar and nightclub that serves as the entertainment hub for Sea Isle’s popular Polar Bear Weekend festivities held each February.
Now that he is going to rebrand the Lobster Loft, Bennett said he is planning to bring in new bands as part of a revamped entertainment lineup. The Insiders Band, a staple of Lobster Loft’s music scene, will stay on, he noted.
Bennett said the rebranding also includes having the Lobster Loft’s executive chef, Jim Firmanski, as well as a new chef, Grier Essick, overhaul the kitchen by developing seafood and pub-style menu specials that will be featured daily on a blackboard.