Michael Landgarten, the current owner of Bob's Clam Hut, purchased the venerable business from Robert Kraft, Sr. in 1986. Before his passing, Kraft was a friend and mentor to Landgarten, who remembers what a slap in the face it was to the former proprietor when another seafood shack with "Hut" in the name opened nearby. "He had essentially coined the term 'hut' to differentiate his place from others, and he was shocked that I was so calm when someone else tried to copy us," Landgarten recalls with a chuckle.
Landgarten wasn't worried, and clearly had nothing to worry about; Bob's Clam Hut has outlasted pretenders to the throne, and retains its significance even amidst the sea of outlets that popped up around it like weeds over the years. The owner concedes that it was a challenge to see his successful business losing its local following as chains and tourists took over his stretch of Route 1.
It took time to rebuild those connections, but Landgarten has never lost focus on his community of regulars. They are what sustain a Maine business long after the summer sun has faded, the red-gold leaves have been raked into compost bags, and the visiting crowds have dwindled to the odd skier.
Part of his focus is being a steward of the land and the sea. Working with local farmers doesn't help him much at a fried food emporium with minimal call for salads, so he works with local fishermen as well. He features "under-loved fish" like hake, which replaces haddock in the fried fish basket. Nobody who tried the hake was disappointed with the switch.
The owner also takes care of his employees, who are an integral part of the community. When Bob's was featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, long-time employee (like, 25 years long-time) Lillian Mangos stole the show. She was a force, one who had been at the hut as long as Landgarten, and she had finally convinced him to break with tradition and add a second fried clam recipe ("Bob's recipe is pure simplicity, but Lillian always said, 'No, you have to dip them into a milk wash before frying!'").
Not only did Landgarten accede to her demands, he told her he'd give her a cut of the profits each and every time she sold an order of her signature dish. Her window was always busy, even if the others were open. She passed away last year at 87. When Landgarten opened his third business less than a year ago, he named it in her honor: Lil's Cafe.
Small wonder, then, that a traveling food blogger passing through Kittery spun a recent post with the conclusion, "The world needs more businesses like Bob's."
Bob's Clam Hut, 315 US Route 1, Kittery, 439-4233, website. Open Sunday - Thursday 11 a.m. - 8:30 p.m., Friday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.