July 25, 2014

Capt'n John's brings flavors of sea to summer parties

Summer staff learn the ropes and grow in the job

A Capt'n John's lobster meal.
Tastes of summer: a Capt'n John's Lobster Meal.

Tastes of summer: a Capt’n John’s Lobster Meal.

Since 1979 people have been enjoying classic New England clambakes from Capt’n John’s, based in Norwalk, Connecticut. The company was started in 1973 by John Childs (a.k.a. The Capt’n) as a fish market, and in 1979 started offering catering. John also opened a restaurant in 1982, but by 1986 realized that the catering business was a more profitable endeavor and Capt’n John’s was born as a seasonal catering business. Although the Capt’n passed away last year, the business is still going strong under the leadership of his mentee, Ed Tracey. It has become an area institution, employing families for years and taking in a troupe of fresh-faced high school and college students each summer.

Chris Kozlowski of Wilton, a graduate of Denison University in Granville, Ohio, said, “Besides the friendly environment, the good, hard work, and the interesting people I have met, I have found that the practical and social skills learned during my time there have been invaluable and appeal to nearly all future employers.”

Mr. Kozlowski started working for the Capt’n in 2007 as a helper and moved into the role of “Captain” in 2009. He also said that the job is more than food preparation. It teaches how to manage others, juggle many responsibilities, and most importantly, how to communicate with clients in a professional manner.

Kate Hochadel, a graduate of Shelton High School and current student at Quinnipiac University, has also been working at Capt’n John’s since 2007 and became one of the “Captains” last year. “I’ve learned a lot of responsibility from this job and I understand how important it is to communicate and work with people,” said Ms. Hochadel.

John Childs, left, was the original Capt'n John; Ed Tracey, who started out working for Mr. Childs, is now in charge.

John Childs, left, was the original Capt’n John; Ed Tracey, who started out working for Mr. Childs, is now in charge.

Sometimes these students stay on years after they graduate — owner Ed Tracey was one of those summer employees who remained loyal. Born and raised in Norwalk, he began working summers at Capt’n John’s while attending college. After graduating from Central Connecticut State University with a degree in accounting, he continued working for Capt’n John’s on weekends while holding down a full-time job in the corporate world. Ed assumed more responsibility for Capt’n John’s as general manager, becoming an owner when the Capt’n decided to step back from the business a few years ago. During this time, he worked with John on all aspects of the business, helping it grow with ideas like realizing that people wanted tents, tables and chairs, subsequently adding those choices to the business’ offerings.

As the employees remain loyal and return year after year, so too has this local business thrived for 34 years. It helps that Capt’n John’s provides a delicious homemade product, employs local people, the food is delivered fresh daily, and quality control is fierce. But there’s also an element of innovation to the enterprise.

As Capt’n John used to say, “Nothing we make comes out of a can or a freezer . . . unless we put it in a can for you.”

Which they will do. In 1982, Capt’n John started to experiment with the idea of a Travelin’ Clambake — a meal in a can that customers could take home and cook. John tried hundreds of different ways to figure out the perfect take-home meal — different sized clams, the optimal temperature to recommend, and finding the right tin can to put it in. He finally hit on just the right concoction, the result being that the customer can now order a $22 Travelin’ Clambake and pick it up in Norwalk. The special can designed by John contains a 1-1/4 lb fresh Maine lobster, steamers, mussels, sausage, corn-on-the-cob and new potatoes. All you do is add water, beer or wine, set it on a stove or grill and cook. Since it’s all self-contained, the customer doesn’t have to worry about picking up an eight-legged arthropod, placing it along with other squirming crustaceans and live mollusks into a pot of boiling hot water, organizing all the other fixin’s, and cleaning up the pots afterward (lobster can get very messy).

For the catering part of the business, almost anything goes. In addition to the classic New England clambakes with the freshest lobster, clams, mussels, new potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and watermelon ($28.95 per person), there is a Surf and Turf option that offers rib eye steak or chicken with lobster ($36.95 per person), or a Texas-style barbeque with succulent baby back ribs and tender chicken cooked over charcoal with their unique Texas barbeque sauce; smoked sausage, homemade chili with beans, pasta primavera or garden salad and watermelon ($21.50 per person). Picnic Parties come with hotdogs and hamburgers, barbecued chicken, pasta primavera or garden salad and watermelon ($13.95 per person). Additional homemade menu items include shrimp cocktail, clams on the half-shell, oysters, clam chowder, cheese platter, crudité, garden salad, macaroni salad, potato salad, cole slaw, grilled vegetables, fruit salad, Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars, cookies, and open bar beverages can be provided as well. A children’s menu is also available.

Party planning is another service Capt’n John’s offers, providing suggestions for company outings, corporate entertaining, social gatherings, professional organizations, anniversaries, birthdays, family picnics, graduation parties, engagement parties, showers, rehearsal dinners and weddings. They can even help find your location — they have the experience and know the terrain well enough to make your event New-England special.

Although the business is based in Norwalk, the cadre of clambake experts comes out to the house or club or picnic table in the park with a truck full of all the freshly-made fixin’s for the party. Capt’n Johns employees cook everything in specially designed 55-gallon drums and serve it up buffet style. They bring everything the customer needs, so hosts can have their shindig with little bother.

In this economy, it is gratifying to see a company endure 34 years in business and successfully embark on a new generation of providing an excellent product and employing local people. Capt’n John’s is a local summer tradition that’s going strong.

Visit us at captainjohns.com or call 203-866-4343 for more information. Like us on Facebook (facebook.com/captainjohns).