Doug and Nancy Van Reeth had no jobs lined up when they returned to Northern Colorado in April after eight years in Maine. The two met in the late ‘90s at the Loveland Reporter Herald, where he was chief photographer and she was a graphic designer, but they knew they weren’t going back to the shrinking newspaper industry.
It didn’t take them long to come up with an alternative. A Panera Bread poster of a lobster roll that Nancy insisted on packing for the trip back to Colorado was the only “art” they had to adorn a wall of their temporary living quarters, a studio apartment above a friend’s warehouse in Windsor. After a few weeks, that memento from Maine switched on a light bulb in their heads.
That idea: Mile High Lobster Shack, a food cart they now operate in and around Fort Collins featuring chunks of Maine lobster nestled in a buttered and toasted bun, served on a bed of Utz Potato Stix with two small dill pickles and a lemon wedge. They also sell hotdogs and brats, but as word of the Maine attraction has spread, the $13 lobster rolls have come to outsell the $5 brats and $4 hotdogs as much as 10-1 depending on the venue, Doug says.
Doug, 59, and Nancy, 56, are like many emerging from the recession who have thrust themselves into entrepreneurism, propelled by a mix of inspiration and desperation. In Maine, Doug had been hired as photo editor of the Lewiston Sun-Journal, but that job was eliminated 2 ½ years later. He landed a job as a copy editor for a software company, but was laid off from that, too, after two years.
So he became a substitute teacher, until, he says, “We decided I was just using that as a crutch and was going nowhere.” When Nancy was laid off as a graphic designer at L.L. Bean, that sealed the deal. They were moving back to Colorado.
“We were fortunate in that we had capital to do this,” Doug says of the startup that included the purchase of a food cart for $6,000. He explained they still had money from the sale of their house in Fort Collins nine years earlier. “We figured, ‘What the hell, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’ We had no idea what was going to happen.”
Business had been growing steadily, but it exploded in mid-September when Josie Sexton wrote a story about the Van Reeths and Mile High Lobster Shack for The Coloradoan. The next morning, a Friday, the Van Reeths arrived at 10:45 to set up for the lunchtime crowd in Old Town Fort Collins and found some 15 customers already there.
There’s been no letup since. One Friday happy hour in late September outside Odell Brewing Co. they worked from noon to 7 p.m., without more than a moment’s pause. One woman made the drive from Cheyenne and ordered six lobster rolls to take back for her boss, a New England transplant.
Doug manned one side of the cart, grilling dogs and brats and buttering rolls; Nancy worked the other side, filling rolls with lobster and placing them on beds of potato sticks in boat-shaped paper trays. A friend took orders and processed credit cards. By closing time they’d sold some 200 lobster rolls, 80 brats and 60 hotdogs.
They both looked tired, but fulfilled. They’d be back to work at 8 the next morning, prepping the cart for a Saturday afternoon gig.