ORLEANS — After over a half century at the helm of the Lobster Claw restaurant in Orleans, what will Don Berig miss after the business’s final meals are served on Sunday, Sept. 13?
“The people, I’m a people person,” he says without missing a beat. “I think that was my calling, to meet with people.”
Berig, 81, reminisced about his 51 years running the award-winning Lobster Claw with his wife Marylou during a telephone interview last week. The pair bought the eight-year-old restaurant in 1970, but Berig had been affiliated with it from almost the beginning, as the restaurant’s accountant. (Berig’s father was also an accountant, and Berig continued working with his father in Boston during the restaurant’s off-season until about 20 years ago.)
In the early days, the Lobster Claw had one dining room where reheated frozen fish was served on paper plates.
“I got rid of the frozen fish and paper plates immediately,” Berig says. His family had owned a fish market in the Allston section of Boston, so he was familiar with fish. Business was slower back then, and the couple closed the restaurant after Labor Day because “you could put a bowling ball down the street in the '70s.” The restaurant reopened each year on April 1 but business didn’t really heat up until the summer months.
Today the Lobster Claw has three dining rooms downstairs and the Surfboat Lounge upstairs. A gift shop sells buoys and lobster-themed clothing and toys.
The days are long in the restaurant business, and you have to love the work to do it.
“It never was work. Exhaustion, but not work,” Berig says. Still, he adds, “my biggest fault — I never wanted to delegate.”
A typical day begins at 6:30 a.m. when Berig and Marylou come downstairs from the apartment where they have lived for about a year, and enter the restaurant. While Marylou washes every window, table, and chair, Berig deals with the bookkeeping from the previous day. By 7:30 a.m., deliveries are arriving, and after the 100 pounds of fish arrives, Berig cuts it up. All of it. When the door opens for lunch at 11:30 a.m. Berig greets his patrons in the nautically-themed dining room where nets hang from the ceiling. At about 3 p.m. he goes upstairs for a half hour nap, then he’s back again at 4.
“I have unbelievable energy,” he says. This summer, the restaurant closed every evening at 8 p.m., meaning Berig’s work day ends at 9:30 p.m., 15 hours after it began. During typical summers he has gotten off work at 10:30 p.m. And “I am one of the few restaurants open seven days of the week,” he adds.
On a Saturday in late August a family told Berig that the children in the group, ages 2 and 3, represented the fourth generation of the family to dine at the Lobster Claw. Among the employees, several have been second generation workers. And in the Berig family, three generations have worked there. This summer one of Berig’s daughters and two of his grandsons worked in the restaurant “just to round out the work force.” Berig’s granddaughter ran the gift shop at age 14. Loyalty is a given here. One hostess was employed at the restaurant for half a century.
“I had great help,” Berig says. That includes the 15 workers from Jamaica who he has had for years.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Berigs had to cut down the restaurant’s seating to 60 percent of capacity to allow social distancing. Normally 221 can be seated downstairs and 67 upstairs. Another difference this year is that older customers are ordering take-out food. The “massive” takeout business sometimes grosses $3,000 or $4,000 a day. That means that the consumption of Dewar’s Scotch, a favorite with the older set, is way, way, down, while drinks popular with the younger set — Jose Cuervo tequila, Tito’s vodka and Firefly — are way up.
More than once Berig emphasizes that he is not retiring due to the coronavirus pandemic. He says the business has managed well, despite its reduced capacity, and he attributes this partly to the fact that he paid off the real estate 41 years ago. “As an old accountant, that was my main objective,” he says. In the dining room he has five instead of the usual 10 servers, and “they’re making as much as last year,” he says. “It all works out.”
Still, the 15 or 20 rehearsal dinners usually held upstairs in the Surfboat Lounge did not take place this summer. Nor will the 20 to 25 buses pull up for their meals of chowder, lobster or steak and grapenut custard this fall.
“That was great business,” he says.
In retirement, the Berigs plan to live in Jupiter, Fla. for nine months, where they can enjoy golfing and boating, and in Boston for three months, where they can attend Red Sox games and see their children and grandchildren. The 6,695-square foot restaurant on a 0.96-acre lot is listed for sale at $1.8 million; the business only can be bought for $499,000.
Since the couple announced their retirement, they have heard from customers from as far away as Hong Kong and Seattle. “People are coming in — it’s kind of emotional,” Berig says.
Berig thanks his customers over the past 51 years.
“It’s been a great run,” he says. “Every day has been a pleasure.”
The Lobster Claw, 42 Route 6A, Orleans, is open for indoor dining and takeout from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Sept. 13. For more information visit www.lobsterclaw.com.