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Chantilly Catholic brings faith and family to seafood business

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Nick Kenna may be a little biased, but he thinks lobsters have a certain appeal, an “it” factor about them. Lobster is what you serve on Valentine’s Day or when out-of-town relatives visit or on Christmas Eve. “If you say, ‘We’re serving lobster,’ that’s always impressive,” he said. “That’s not an ordinary dinner.”

Nick, the owner of Lobster Maine-ia in Chantilly, wants to bring more of those extraordinary dinners to Northern Virginia diners. 

Nick and his six siblings grew up eating lobster while on summer vacation in Maine. Each year, his parents, Kim and Ray, would bring several of the tasty crustaceans back to Virginia and host a lobster feast for friends. People loved them.

“We saw a niche in the marketplace with fresh Maine lobster that were only a few days out of the water,” said Ray. Seeing long antennae is the key to knowing if a lobster is fresh, said Nick. The longer they stay in tanks, the more the captives nibble on their neighbors’ antennae. “In our research, we found that most of the lobsters at your grocery stores and wholesale processors here were many days out of the ocean. They lose their sweetness,” said Ray. “So that’s why we started.” 

The family particularly favors the taste of Maine lobsters. “It really has to do with the water temperature,” said Nick. “Maine is the sweet spot where the water is not too cold or not too warm. Lobsters really thrive there.” 

To protect its biggest export, the state regulates how the lobsters are caught. “If they catch a female with eggs, they’ll mark it and throw it back and never catch that lobster again,” said Nick. The fishermen often throw back lobsters that are too small, or very big, which means they are more likely to reproduce. “A 11/2 pound lobster is about 10 years old, and that’s (typically) what the customer wants, and what the lobsterman is catching,” he said.  

The lobby of the Chantilly store pays homage to the company’s namesake with lobster wall décor, tablecloths and stuffed animals, alongside family photos and a crucifix. Behind the cash register and a glass case full of fresh seafood are tanks of live lobsters, which are driven down from Maine almost every day. The creatures are sorted by size, from about 1 pound up to 10 pounds, and their claws are encased in brightly colored rubber bands. “It’s not fun to get pinched by them,” said Nick. 

Though they began by selling just lobsters in 2013, over the years Lobster Maine-ia has expanded to sell seafood such as scallops, fish and even the other scarlet-colored shellfish, Maryland crabs. As a result, Nick ends up eating seafood four or five nights a week — occasionally whatever is left over but oftentimes the best of what his store has to offer. “Something comes in that is so fresh and I have to try (it). Like, I can’t not eat this for dinner,” he said. 

In addition to selling directly to customers at the store, the company also has booths at nearby farmers markets, including the market at One Loudoun. Their seafood, lobster and beyond, appears on the menus of local restaurants such as Ciao Osteria in Centreville and MGM National Harbor in Maryland. During certain times of the year, you don’t have to go farther than a Catholic church to sample fish from Lobster Maine-ia. The company provides cod for the Lenten fish fry for Nick’s parish, St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, and sometimes other parishes as well. 

Faith and family are a big part of the company, said Nick. It’s visible to the customers, from Friday Lenten seafood specials to church family photos on the walls. Many on staff are Catholic, too. Nick and one of his employees “snuck out for an hour and went to confession last week in the middle of the day,” he said. “We always emphasize (faith) as a focal point.”

Ray loves that his son and several of his other children have worked or work at Lobster Maine-ia. His favorite part about the company is “having Nick run it,” he said with a laugh. “Having all the kids work (here) over their college breaks, it’s been a great opportunity. All the hours that we spend together, it’s really been a blessing.” 

Maraist can be reached at zoey.maraist@catholicherald.com or Twitter @zoeymaraistACH.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020