Tacoma’s Lobster Shop is selling to owners that waterfront fish and chips fans will know
Since 1977, the Lobster Shop has been synonymous with waterfront dining at two Tacoma locations. This is big news. The Lobster Shop’s owners – Denny and Katie Driscoll – have agreed to sell their Commencement Bay location of the Lobster Shop. The best part? They are selling it to the owners of a waterfront destination that’s been a part of Tacoma’s waterfront dining scene since 1991: Steamers Seafood Cafe.
“We’re looking at this as – it’s not sad after all these years, it’s really great. E3, we just find them to be a great match. They’re experts at what they do and they understand hospitality. They have a great sense of care and commitment to their people. We leave with great peace of mind,” explained Katie Driscoll, co-owner of the Lobster Shop with husband and founder Denny Driscoll.
“We’re thrilled to be taking over this icon,” said Jim Rowe, owner and CEO of E3 & Co. Restaurant Group. For now, there are no changes planned for the menu or service.
The transition takes place Dec. 13 when E3 takes possession. The restaurant group previously operated Steamers, the iconic fast-casual seafood restaurant known for its crunchy panko-breaded fish and chips, for 30 years at Tacoma’s Titlow Beach. It closed this spring when E3 Restaurant Group lost its lease and could not find a new location. E3 also happens to be the same restaurant company that owns fine dining brands Elliott’s Oyster House and the Metropolitan Steakhouse, both in Seattle.
“What appealed to us is the fact that it’s a waterfront seafood restaurant. Clearly that’s something that we’re familiar with. We know that world with Elliott’s,” said Rowe about the purchase of Lobster Shop. “We feel comfortable with iconic landmark locations. We understand what it takes to operate a restaurant like that. Restaurants like that are important to the community. It involves a level of care and integration to make them really successful and we loved the location and we like Tacoma. We’ve only been there with Steamers. Our presence hasn’t been huge, but we’ve always liked the market.”
The decision to sell to E3 definitely was made easier because of “their legacy of being experts at what they do, whether it’s fish and chips at Steamers, or at one of the greatest steakhouses in the United States, the Metropolitan Grill, and also one of the most quintessential Northwest seafood restaurants, Elliott’s,” said Driscoll.
Driscoll has been a longtime fan and customer of Metropolitan Grill, an E3 restaurant with a long-built reputation for serving a great steak, a solid martini and a cadre of career servers. “It’s a timeless traditional experience, from the way you’re greeted at the front door, to the expertise of the people waiting on you and the high quality of the meal. It’s still one place you can get such a high quality steak and they have an outstanding Northwest wine list. We’ve known it, know the restaurant well, and have been familiar fans of the Metropolitan Grill for years,” she said.
HOW THIS SALE CAME TO BE
Selling the Lobster Shop was not an immediate need or an urgent priority, but a decision they’ve thought about. “We’re a little long in the tooth now. Denny is 75 now and I’m 70. It’s definitely time. The last couple years have been so hectic,” Driscoll said. The Driscolls and Rowe were introduced by a mutual restaurant friend.
“To be honest, clearly, we can read numbers and we knew we were getting older and the time was approaching. We didn’t have concrete plans, but when Covid happened, it was behind the scenes, a lot of activity. It was people calling and asking, ‘Would you be interested in buying my restaurant?’ And we would also say, ‘Would you be interested in buying ours?’ There were some very unusual conversations going on. We talked to a lot of people, but our main concern was security for our crew members. Not only were we lucky to find somebody we knew would do that, but that they are a brand we know and trust,” she said.
“We left things well with a lot of opportunity for our people,” she said. “And we don’t have to do the work now,” she said, laughing about their eventual glide into retirement.
What does that opportunity look like for Lobster Shop employees? Driscoll said she and Denny heard the thing they needed to hear from the owners of E3: we will be offering all your staff members a job.
“They told us they’re going to offer everybody a job and they did offer everybody a job,” said Driscoll. “That was a huge relief, to make sure that the people who cared for our business are given that opportunity.”
Now only did Rowe offer a job to all employees, but the company also recognized the service tenure of employees. “We’re recognizing their service credit for PTO (paid time off). So if somebody has been there 10 years, they’ll come into the E3 benefits plan as a 10-year employee,” said Rowe. He also said the company honored employee time-off requests for the holidays and other schedule requests. “Anybody who had scheduled time off, we told them to take that time off and continue doing what they need to do.”
He added, “Philosophically, we’re very aligned with Katie and Denny and how they feel about their employees. We’ll evolve over time, as every company does, and we know that at times our business can be transitory and employees will come and go regardless of ownership. Given the nature of this transition, we wanted it to be seamless.”
HISTORY OF LOBSTER SHOP
If you played a three-degrees-of-separation game with local restaurant workers in the business for more than 10 years, you will find every player has worked for or knows somebody who has worked for the Driscolls.
Denny Driscoll opened the first Lobster Shop in June 1977 at Dash Point. At that time, Driscoll lived upstairs at the restaurant – yes, upstairs – and did just about everything at the restaurant, including dishwashing. He duplicated the concept and opened the second Lobster Shop outpost on Commencement Bay in 1981.
They closed the original Dash Point Lobster Shop in 2015, and it sat dormant until Gino’s at the Point opened in 2019. And the Lobster Shops are not the only restaurants Denny and Katie Driscoll have owned. They operated Tanglewood Grill in Gig Harbor until it was sold and became O’Neill’s in 2018 before Dunagan Irish Pub and Brewery opened in that space this year. In 2012, they opened Boathouse 19, a casual waterfront seafood restaurant located at the Narrows Marina (read down below about the fate of that restaurant).
The Lobster Shop – both the original Dash Point location and the Commencement Bay location – always carried an easy elegance. The restaurants flirted with formality, but always with an unfussy Northwest approach. It’s also a restaurant that changed with the times. I remember Denny Driscoll telling me almost a decade ago: We’ve got a reputation as a “steak, lobster and coconut prawns” restaurant. That’s shorthand in the restaurant world for an outdated concept.
They hired Jeff Bishop, who longtimers will know as the former chef at Tacoma’s long-gone Il Fiasco. He updated the menu and so did several other chefs who worked for the Lobster Shop, including Chef Tom Small, Justin Mevs and so many others.
No matter which chef was at the helm or what twist might be added to the menu, the fixtures that made the Lobster Shop a celebration destination for four decades have always remained: This-is-why-we-live-here water views, professional staff who carry the cadence of career servers and a restaurant that knows how to pour a solid martini.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR LOBSTER SHOP UNDER E3
When that Dec. 13 transition happens, diners shouldn’t notice any changes. The servers will be the same, the menu will be the same, the restaurant will look the same.
Rowe envisions taking some time to feel out Tacoma diners about what comes next. No major decisions have been made about the name, the concept and other fixtures.
“We need to get to know the restaurant, the guests, the team. To make sure whatever we do moving forward makes as much sense as possible. We’ll spend some time operating it as the Lobster Shop. It may be the Lobster Shop forever, or maybe not, but it’s always going to be seafood centric,” said Rowe.
He said customer input will play a part in what happens next.
He’s certain that the restaurant will get a makeover. “We’re anxious to do some work. It’s been a long time since it’s had a major investment. It’s time,” he said.
He said that the company recently completed an overhaul of Seattle’s Met Grill and that was a tear-down that took about 12 weeks. He envisions the Lobster Shop to be more of a refresh than a total overhaul. It should be less complicated and time consuming than the Met makeover. He does anticipate a short Lobster Shop closure of some kind to make those physical changes to the restaurant. “We’ll work to minimize the potential disruption,” he added.
WILL STEAMERS MENU ITEMS RETURN?
Possibly, said Rowe. Again, customers will have a say in how the restaurant and its menu evolve. “We haven’t made those decisions yet, but if there’s a guest demand and it’s concept appropriate, we’ll do that,” Rowe said when I asked if some of the favorite Steamers items, such as the crunchy fish and chips and red chowder, could show up on the menu.
He added that the menu will be freshened up as needed. “People like change and diversity. You have to be mindful of those core items, but the menu needs to be fresh and current. You’ve got to try stuff while keeping the mainstays,” he said.
WHAT HAPPENS TO BOATHOUSE 19?
So what happens next to the other restaurant owned by the Driscolls, Boathouse 19? It’s not going to E3, but do expect a change. The Driscolls say they are not yet able to make an announcement, but will soon. “There will be news about that soon. When the time comes that information will be released,” said Driscoll. I’ll be sure to update this story when I learn more, and keep an eye on my website for updates.
WHAT’S NEXT IN RETIREMENT FOR THE DRISCOLLS?
With the Lobster Shop sale completed, what does the next chapter of their life look like?
“We honestly don’t know what we’re going to do. We just want to pass the torch to the next group of people,” said Driscoll. What’s present in their minds is the community support for their restaurant – four four decades. By Denny’s count, they’ve served somewhere around 4 million meals over the years at their restaurants.
“We are incredibly indebted to the South Sound community. It’s been 44 years now. Like Denny said when he opened his first restaurant, ‘I couldn’t imagine owning a restaurant for 10 years, let alone 44.’ It’s been a wonderful, wonderful, fun, gracious and fabulous community. We couldn’t have asked for better customers.”
Update: This story has been updated with comments from Katie Driscoll.
Update 2: This story has been updated with comments from Jim Rowe.