Merrill’s Wharf in Portland, Maine, sits between Union Wharf and the Portland Fish Pier, home of the Portland Fish Exchange. Unassuming, the wharf extends beyond a large building that is home to the King’s Head Pub and Pierce Atwood, a law office. There are just a handful of boats that tie up to the floats alongside the parking lot that has some spaces reserved for fishermen, but many more spots reserved for lawyers.
There are a few lobster traps, nets and buoys alongside the boats, but aside from that, the wharf is less working waterfront than some of the other wharves lining Commercial Street, and more illustrative of the city’s mixed-use ordinance, an effort to balance the needs of the fishermen and development.
A black 45-foot Novi boat, F/V Patience, sits resplendently in line with the other boats. Named Patience for the tolerance needed to captain a boat that tops out at 8 knots, its name is also indicative of the kind and patient nature of the captain himself, Thomas Werner.
Werner has been fishing, like so many others, since he was a kid. He bought the Patience when he was just 25 years old, and 13 years later, while he might like a new boat, he is holding fast and not planning to buy one anytime soon.
“I was considering a new boat, but with all the regulations and stuff coming up, I needed to wait and see what direction everything was going in, and maybe invest money someplace else,” says Werner.
So, instead, he and his wife Katie chose to invest in a restaurant on Peaks Island.
The Werners started the Island Lobster Co. in 2019, and the restaurant is now going into its third season.
“We didn’t plan on getting into the restaurant industry, but it was an opportunity that came up,” he says. The previous owners did not want to sell the property to a major developer who could turn the property into condos. “Nobody wants that,” Werner says, “and they (the previous owners) were willing to work with us. So we figured we would give it a go.”
Like many restaurants in 2020, the season was challenging. Werner notes that sales were down. However, they were fortunate because their restaurant is seasonal and relies on outdoor seating regardless of a pandemic.
“We lost a few tables, but we were able to salvage the season,” Werner says. “It wasn’t pretty, but we made it work.”
Like many other lobstermen, he has and will continue to consider diversifying into other fisheries. But no fishery is without its down sides.
“I am worried about the same things as I am with lobster: more regulations.” Werner looks to the restaurant as an opportunity to grow. “If I can put the work in now, and then I can diversify into other fisheries later or it will lead to something else.”
For the Werners, including kids Tommy and Delaney, owning Island Lobster Co. is an opportunity for them to all work together. Werner says this is one of his favorite parts.
“It’s a family business and an opportunity for the kids when they get older. The restaurant is not all about the financial aspect, it’s about family and having the property on Peaks Island.”