PARK CITY — Earlier this summer, when the Park City husband-wife team of Ben and Lorin Smaha waltzed into Maine for the Down East Magazine Lobster Roll Cook-off and waltzed back to landlocked Utah with the grand prize of “World’s Best Lobster Roll,” a lot of New Englanders were understandably left with mouths agape.
Where did they say they were from?
Let’s imagine a realistic comparable: Massachusetts winning Best Snow? New Hampshire winning Best Funeral Potatoes?
But there it was, straight from the judges' mouths and stomachs: search the ends of the Earth and you won’t find a tastier lobster roll than the one Ben and Lorin serve up at Freshies — either at their brick-and-mortar restaurant in Park City’s Prospector Square or from their food truck that makes the rounds of the Salt Lake Valley.
After surviving a day of taste-testing by 250 specially invited lobster roll aficionados — each of whom paid $100 for the privilege — Ben and Lorin found themselves in the finals against two restaurants from Maine, the very epicenter of lobsterdom, and since the festival took place in Portland, Maine, and the five finals judges were respected food critics from the East, the couple's expectations to ultimately prevail were lower than a lobster stuck at the bottom of a net.
“Didn’t think we had a chance,” recalled Lorin, who also wryly confessed she had the same thought when she and Ben were about to catch a redeye in Salt Lake City to fly back to the competition.
“I got to the parking lot and thought this was a dumb idea. 'We’re just wasting our money,'” she said.
They’d heard about the contest from a friend who'd read about it in Down East magazine; on a whim, they sent in their entry and were accepted. Now she was having second thoughts.
In the airport terminal, Lorin went so far as to ask the airlines if they could get their money back.
“Nope. Nonrefundable,” she was told.
“Well that settled it,” she said, smiling, “We’d already spent $1,000.”
Once in Maine, though, the New England natives — Ben grew up in Maine and Lorin in New Hampshire — relaxed and got busy doing what they do best: making lobster rolls.
The pair originally came to Utah, and specifically Park City, for the skiing. But craving the fresh lobster they enjoyed in New England, in 2009 they opened a lobster roll stall in the Park City farmers market.
“We had a 10-by-10 tent, a cooler and a griddle. Total investment $500,” said Lorin. “It was no big deal.”
But their customers disagreed. The lobster rolls were a big deal.
The farmers market popularity soon led to the food truck and then to the restaurant in Prospector Square that opened a year ago.
In all their incarnations, Ben and Lorin have stuck to their company theme: “From Shore to Door in 24.” Translated, that means the lobster meat they serve today was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean yesterday.
The process goes like this: fisherman catches lobster, lobster is brought to shore and cooked in salt water, vacuum sealed, put on a Southwest cargo plane for Salt Lake City, picked up at the airport by a transportation company, and dropped off at Freshies back door.
The lobster meat is never frozen and never more than 24 hours from enjoying life in the ocean.
Lorin Smaha says the secret to making a mouth-watering lobster roll is to “let the lobster shine, don’t mask it.” They use a toasted New England-style hotdog bun (also imported), light seasoning, a dab of mayo and butter. “We keep it pretty simple.”
Here’s how Michael Stern, a food critic from Roadfood.com and one of the cook-off judges, described his experience with a Freshies lobster roll: “The meat was great, the bun was great, the seasoning was great. It was just kind of perfect.”
Reports like that have, predictably, put Ben and Lorin’s little enterprise on the next level. Business is up 300 percent to 400 percent since they got back from Maine.
“It’s been crazy,” says Lorin. “Every time a news outlet does another report about that contest the lines start flying out the door.”
“World’s Best.” Does it every time.