Usually, when a restaurant’s signature dish is known far and wide, there are whispers of secret ingredients and complicated instructions. Not at Red’s Eats, a seafood shack on Route 1 in Wiscasset best known for its lobster rolls. There are only three ingredients in a Red’s Eats lobster roll: the roll, fresh Maine lobster and butter. But the sandwich’s scant ingredient list doesn’t mean it’s easy to make. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way.

When I walk up to Red’s Eats on a Wednesday morning, eager but nervous to learn how to make a classic lobster roll the landmark is famous for, there is a growing line of hungry customers stretching down the sidewalk before the shack had opened. One woman at the front of the line brought a beach chair for the wait. The man standing next to her glances at his phone and announces to those around him, “31 minutes to mouth heaven.”

Creating the sandwich people will wait hours for begins when an Atlantic Edge Lobster delivery truck stops in front of the shack and offloads cases of Maine lobster meat sourced from the waters of Boothbay Harbor. The meat — only tails, knuckles and claws — arrives de-shelled and de-veined.

Debbie Gagnon, the owner, plucks a morsel of lobster from that morning’s delivery and holds it out to me as I’m ushered into the shack through the side door. I put the piece of lobster meat on my tongue and can taste the slightest hint of sea water.

I make it about a half-step over the threshold but quickly run out of room because five Red’s Eats employees already are crammed into the tight space. The shack smells overwhelmingly of warm, melted butter and fry oil — the kind that evokes memories of beach boardwalks and summer baseball games. Elton John’s “Rocket Man” is just ending on the radio and the orchestral overture of Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” starts to bleed through the speakers. (I was later told the eatery only plays music from the 1970s.)

Gagnon makes introductions and gives a brief tour, guiding me up a singular strip of floorspace about 3 feet in diameter. Within minutes, Red’s Eats opens its window to the long line of customers waiting outside. The first order of the day is, of course, a lobster roll, and the shack erupts into a practiced dance. I don’t know the choreography, so I do my best to stay out of the way.


Shannon Brown, an employee of 23 years, pulls a New England-style hotdog roll out of a storage drawer and sets it down as the foundation of the famous sandwich. Brown applies a generous portion of melted butter to the roll’s exterior by running it over what she calls “the hamster wheel.” Picture a tin can lying on its side within a square container on the grill brimming with melted butter. The buttered bun is then put on the grill to toast. Once golden brown on both sides, the bun is passed down the length of the shack to where the lobster sits, and this is when the hard part starts.

Isabella Marino, an employee of five years and Red’s Eats’ lobster roll chef, hands me a toasted bun and instructs me to hold it vertically in one hand. Marino holds her own roll and I do my best to clumsily replicate her.

First, I lay two claws on opposite ends of the bun so they poke out just the slightest bit. I then hunt for smaller, pieces of tender knuckle meat to tuck into the middle of the roll. Now, I have to find two tails of similar size and color, which I balance on the top of either ends of the bun so they look like a set of parentheses. From there, I choose larger chunks of meat to pile between the two tails. Marino tells me the lobster should look almost like an oval when looked at from above.

I soon discover that when building a Red’s Eats lobster roll, the golden rule is: If you can’t see the roll, you’re doing it right. While that seems simple enough, keep in mind the lobster meat isn’t mixed with anything to help hold it together. I find the hardest part about building the sandwich is toeing the line between a generous serving and adding too much lobster so it tumbles off the roll.

A Red’s Eats lobster roll is never weighed, so Gagnon doesn’t know exactly how much lobster is put in every roll, but said the seafood shack goes through “hundreds of pounds” of lobster each day. In 2019, the eatery sold about 14.5 tons of lobster, according to Gagnon.

Marino’s eyes drift from her uniform roll to my haphazard attempt and assures me that it took her two years to master the art. “Some people don’t even dare to learn,” she says.


Gagnon tells me she wants every lobster roll to look the same because “We eat with our eyes first, so the rolls need to be pretty.”

At this point, most of the lobster meat is supported by the tips of my fingers and the side of my thumb and I can feel the cold shellfish through my gloved hand. Marino helps shape my roll with a few final pieces of lobster and leads me to where a nest of foil waits in a take-out container. I nestle the overflowing lobster roll in the container, trying my best not to topple any pieces. Small cups of melted butter and mayonnaise are placed in the container for patrons to add to their liking, and it’s whisked out to the customer.

The heartiness and simplicity of the sandwich are among the reasons customers return and the landmark remains on tourists’ travel lists.

Carter Newt of Florida said he visits Red’s Eats multiple times each summer while living in his summer home in Harpswell because “It’s a generous portion and the staff is amazing.” On Wednesday, he and his wife, Barbara, waited in line for 45 minutes for lobster rolls but assured me “it’s worth the wait.”

Dan Kurcan of Vermont waited in line for an hour and a half to get a Red’s Eats lobster roll because “I’ve known about it for years and knew I would come at some point, so today is that day.”

Gagnon tells me her father, the Red of Red’s Eats, used to make his lobster rolls with “just a touch” of mayonnaise, but stopped after patrons repeatedly asked for the sandwich without it, so he changed the order to what it is today.

“When Dad bought Red’s, lobster rolls were not on the menu,” Gagnon says. “Dad went to another local place and had a lobster roll. He came back and said, ‘It was awful — frozen lobster, celery, mayonnaise — ugh! I am going to make a lobster roll that people remember.’ And he did.”

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