WASHINGTON – It’s lunchtime on a warm, sunny Friday in downtown Washington.
The sidewalks around Farragut Square — a postage stamp of grass and benches two blocks from the White House — are packed with hundreds of hungry workers mulling the culinary choices offered by two dozen kitchens on wheels.
Afghan kabobs? Fried Asian dumplings? Peruvian pork tenderloin with grilled sweet potato? Gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese?
Kelly Seymour and Sara Eppes bypassed all of them and headed straight for the long line of people waiting for Maine lobster served up curbside from a truck.
“I’m a lobster fan, and this is the best lobster roll I have ever had,” said Seymour, a loyal customer of Red Hook Lobster Pound DC’s food truck, as she pointed to her $15 roll piled with lobster from Maine processors.
“It’s just such a treat,” said Eppes, who somewhat sheepishly confessed to tracking the roving truck via Facebook and Twitter to find out what days it would be parked nearby. “Even though it’s expensive, you get your money’s worth.”
Gourmet lunch trucks have become big business in the nation’s capital in the past three years – so big that traditional restaurants are pressuring the city to restrict where and how long they can park.
And if the lines are any indication, dishing out Maine lobster on the streets of D.C. is good business. The Red Hook truck consistently had one of the longest lines Friday. It ran out of its Maine-style rolls in less than two hours, although customers who craved lobster still could order the hot and buttery Connecticut-style roll.
The food truck’s success wasn’t guaranteed when it started in the summer of 2010.
“We kind of rolled the dice,” said Leland Morris, president of Red Hook Lobster Pound DC. “We didn’t know what the reaction would be to, one, a seafood sandwich sold from a truck and, two, a $15 seafood sandwich from a truck.”
In fact, Morris and his partner, Doug Povich, had to convince city officials that nothing in Washington’s health code precluded the sale of seafood from a food truck. But a year after launching the first truck, Red Hook added one in Manhattan and another in Washington.
The company actually started in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, N.Y. – hence the name – when Ralph Gorham and his wife, Susan Povich, decided there was an untapped market for live lobsters in the trendy neighborhood.
Gorham began making twice-weekly trips to Maine — where Povich’s family has a home — to buy the lobsters that would be sold in their small storefront.
The business took off when Povich — a trained chef whose father is talk show celebrity Maury Povich — began selling Maine lobster rolls at the lobster pound and at a big flea market in Brooklyn.
Doug Povich, who is Susan Povich’s cousin, eventually convinced the skeptical couple to let him try a food truck to sell lobster rolls in Washington.
Lobster Pound DC now has more than 25,000 followers on Twitter (@LobstertruckDC) and was named the Best Food Truck in 2012 by readers of the Washington City Paper.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine uses the company for her annual lobster-themed fundraiser in Washington, as does Bloomberg for its star-studded party that follows the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Red Hook buys its lobster from multiple Maine suppliers, including processed meat from Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond and Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, said Susan Povich.
Customers of Lobster Pound DC can choose a traditional Maine-style lobster roll piled high with meat in a light mayo-lemon sauce (with a paprika twist) or a Connecticut-style roll with buttered lobster meat served hot.
Continuing the Maine theme, the truck offers Maine Root fountain sodas from Portland, clam chowder and lobster bisque ingredients from a Maine supplier, and whoopie pies that, while made locally, come from a company with Maine roots. It served its lobster on J.J. Nissen rolls until the bakery in Biddeford closed late last year.
“We try to source everything from family-oriented folks up in Maine,” Morris said.
On Friday, Farragut Square looked like a bustling outdoor food market as crowds lined up in front of the two dozen food trucks and took their fare into the park to eat on benches or the grass.
At $15 for a roll ($18 with chips and a drink), a lobster lunch doesn’t come cheap. Then again, neither do most other things in a city that consistently ranks among the nation’s 10 most expensive places to live.
Few customers were complaining.
A big fan, John Yoo brought along two co-workers from the American Red Cross who had never tried the truck. Yoo admitted that he occasionally goes to another place to get his lobster rolls in D.C., but said he prefers the truck.
“Oh, my God, so good,” his co-worker, Hiba Anwar, said between bites.
“It’s delicious,” said Roxanne Namazi.
While Washington was largely spared Hurricane Sandy’s wrath in October, the waterfront community of Red Hook, Brooklyn, was directly in the path of the storm. Saltwater surged into the Red Hook Lobster Pound, ruining everything inside.
“We were closed for four months. We had to redo everything in the business,” Mark Franzen, manager of the pound, said by phone last week.
When the pound and other local businesses reopened March 1, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg bought the first Maine lobster roll.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: