Red’s Eats: A family business for 40 years
Red’s Eats in Wiscasset is celebrating an anniversary this year.
Red’s may be a little food stand in a small Maine town, but everything else about it is huge – including its lobster rolls and its reputation. Well-known all over Maine, the United States, and beyond, Red’s has been in business for almost 80 years, and in the Gagnon family for 40.
The family has put its heart and soul into the business since Al “Red” Gagnon, who died in 2008, bought the stand in 1977. Now Gagnon’s four children, Debbie, Joseph and David Gagnon, and Cindy Collamore continue to carry on the tradition of serving the best lobster rolls they possible can.
On Aug. 29, Debbie Gagnon and Collamore took short breaks to talk about their business, their father, their siblings and their lobster rolls.
Red’s had been for sale for a few years when her father bought it, Gagnon said. “Nobody was really interested in it.” But Al Gagnon had a vision.
“Dad had gone to another establishment and bought a lobster roll. He came back and said, ‘That was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten.’” He said the lobster had been frozen, and there was celery and mayonnaise in the roll. “It was horrible, and he said he was going to make a lobster roll that people would remember. That’s how it all started.”
He drove to Wotton’s Wharf in Boothbay Harbor every day to buy his lobster, and he started making lobster rolls the way he believed people wanted them. It caught on quickly. “Word of mouth was the best advertising ever,” Gagnon said.
The name came from previous owner Harold Delano, whose reddish hair earned him the nickname, “Red.” After Gagnon took over, the nickname was passed on to him.
On Aug. 29, as usual, around 35 people were lined up from the take-out widow, down around the corner of Water Street and Route 1. It’s not unusual for the wait for one of the most sought after lobster rolls in the country to take an hour or longer, but most agree it’s worth the wait.
“It wasn’t always like this,” Collamore said. “Dad and I used to sit here playing cribbage while we waited for customers to show up.
“My father and I would open at 11:00 and leave at 2 or 3 in the morning, every day. When it was slow we’d play Frisbee in the street. It was like the hangout for kids in town.”
Red’s lobster rolls literally overflow with lobster. “We don’t measure,” Gagnon said. “We just pile it on. There’s way more than one lobster in each one.” And there are no fillers. The lobster rolls are served with hot melted butter and/or mayonnaise on the side.
Last year, 14.5 tons of lobster meat, delivered fresh daily, made its way out through the little take-out window during the six months it was open.
Decks and outside seating have been added over the years, but otherwise not much has changed since a little red caboose was hauled up the hill from the railroad tracks and placed beneath a Siberian elm tree almost 80 years ago.
The huge tree is now 154 years old, and it is well cared for. “This tree is royalty,” Gagnon said. After a tree specialist was consulted a few years ago, an irrigation system was installed, and “she gets shots every spring. She is our living umbrella.”
You never know when you might see a celebrity waiting in line at Red’s. CBS Sunday Morning was in Wiscasset recently filming a segment about Red’s Eats, and Andrew Zimmern has listed the stand as one of his “Favorite Places in America.” Tom Cruise has been a customer and Lionel Richie showed up one day with his son.
Richie had been playing at a wedding reception in Boothbay, and he was asked to play longer, but he left early because he wanted to get to Red’s for a lobster roll before it closed. And when Cruise came, Collamore said “the girls (employees) were all looking out the window saying, ‘Oh my god it’s Tom Cruise!’ And Dad said, ‘Who the hell is Tom Cruise?’”
Red’s has been featured in segments on The Food Network, RoadTrip, on German Public Radio, and on Nippon Television in Japan, and in countless magazines and publications and online sites including The Washington Post, Coastal Living Magazine, Huffington Post, and Thrillist.com. Red’s lobster roll has been voted Maine’s #1 in DownEast Magazine.
Red’s doesn’t take cards, only cash and checks. But that doesn’t serve as a deterrent. No one is turned away. “If they’ve waited in line, and they get to the window and don’t have a check or cash, I give them a business card and tell them to mail a check when they get home,” Gagnon said. “No one has ever left without their food.”
Gagnon and Collamore said that showing their appreciation, and treating their customers with respect, come naturally.
“We learned at a very young age, from both our parents, that customer service is the key,” Collamore said. “The customer is always right, and we go to any length we can to make the customer happy. And we really, honestly care about them.”
And then there are their employees. “We couldn’t do what we do without them,” Gagnon said.
“We have such wonderful kids working for us,” Collamore said. “We are blessed. We’re good to them and they are good to us.”
Wiscasset resident and Art Walk organizer Lucia Droby spoke of Red’s in glowing terms. “Red’s is the anchor to the village. During the Wiscasset Art Walk, we can count on a crowd around Red’s to keep that corner lively. The Gagnon family appreciates how important it is for all of us to move forward together.”
"We can't say enough about how wonderful Reds is, not just in what they serve, but for everything they do for Wiscasset,” BIRCH owner Brad Sevaldson said of the Gagnon family. “They have put Wiscasset on the map. The number of tourists that they have for years been bringing to town are responsible for the success of most of our businesses. They are a wonderful family, and they have an amazing team of employees."
Gagnon said there’s really no secret to Red's success. “We just give people the freshest food, and pile it on. Dad always said, ‘You can feed anyone once, but feed them twice and you’re doing something right!’”
“We have greeted guests from all over the world, who have told me they came to Maine because of us, and that's humbling,” Collamore said. “It never gets old hat to me. It always amazes me.”
Red’s, at 41 Water Street, is open from 11:30 to 10 p.m. Call (207) 882-6128.