Artist and entrepreneur John Norris knows a thing or two about Maine lobster – and he’s shelling out that wisdom every day at his brand new On the Rock Lobster shack in Freeland.
Known around Washington state as the “picker” who unearths hidden treasures from abandoned storage lockers, Norris has a sixth sense for things with inherent value. This time, he’s pulling his bounty from the sea or, more specifically, from the northern Atlantic waters off the coast of Maine.
On the Rock sits in a nondescript parking lot on Main Street in Freeland, but it’s almost impossible to miss. Like the bright red Homarus americanus species of cold-water Maine lobster sizzling and steaming inside, the shack itself screams with fire-engine red from top to bottom: “Lobster Rolls. Homemade Mac and Cheese.” And it’s not just any mac and cheese dish; this one is the Beecher’s “World’s Best Mac & Cheese” from Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, topped with a generous pile of Maine lobster from On the Rock.
The crustaceans come directly from Greenhead Lobster in Maine, a family-run business with whom the Norris family has bonded. Insisting on authenticity, Norris also has freshly baked lobster rolls shipped in, which is the “make or break” component of a genuine lobster roll, according to aficionados. A signature feature of the soft white roll is its flat side, which is top-split and lightly toasted in butter. On the Rock uses a griddle to toast the buns and keeps the filling simple.
“You don’t wanna muck it up,” Norris said. “Lobster is lobster, after all.”
Seasoning is light, mostly just Old Bay, along with some mayo and lemon juice.
Just like their lobster source in Maine, On the Rock is a family-run business, with the Norris kids chipping in and dishing out on a daily basis. Son Tyler Norris, who recently moved back to South Whidbey after studying at the University of San Diego, was one of the masterminds of the lobster venture. Working with some surfer friends originally from Maine, who made a small fortune selling lobster tacos at festivals in California and Oregon, Tyler invented a solar-powered cooler that comes in handy now at the lobster shack.
The operation is smooth and self-sufficient, which shows in the relaxed island-style ambiance. The aim is to blend East Coast and West Coast seafood culture, which spawned the whole idea for the lobster shack.
Lamenting that there’s nowhere in South Whidbey where you can buy a cooked crab, put on a bib, and eat it in the open air, Norris eventually landed on the idea of bringing lobster culture to the island instead of crab.
Tyler is on board as well.
“We embraced the Maine lobster style in its most authentic self,” he said, “but infused the Seattle and island vibe with local ingredients like Beecher’s cheese.”
The lobster shack is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day through September as long as the weather lasts.
After that? The hopes are for a permanent location in Freeland, based on customer response (or more like begging). The refrains of “Please don’t stop” started at the Whidbey Island Fair in July, when the lobster rolls made their debut as one of highest sellers for the event, according to Norris. After the new On the Rock shack opened last week in Freeland, it immediately developed a fan base.
“One guy pulled up in a truck,” recounts Norris, “and he walked over, ate a lobster roll in four bites flat, and then walked back to his truck, got his wallet, and ordered another one.” Another lady drove down from Greenbank and announced that she was 87 years old and had never tasted a lobster roll. “Before I die, I want one,” the octagenarian said. So she bought two, and gleefully marked if off her bucket list.