What turned out to be a stressful summer has ended up working out.
James Luciano spent half his life working at the PJ Lobster House in Port Jefferson. Originally located on the corner of Main Street and North Country Road in Upper Port, the business was forced to move into the former Ocean 88 space at 134 Main St.
Luciano started working at the original location in March 2000. A friend at the time asked him to help in the kitchen.
“I was in high school at the time,” he said. “I started working in a kitchen, and then I just slowly worked my way up.”
At only 18, during his first year of college, Luciano began managing the restaurant. He said that at the time the Lobster House’s original owners — a lobsterman and his wife — didn’t have anyone who could do the day-to-day chores. That’s when he stepped up and the rest is history.
“I kind of took over at that point, and then slowly evolved it from being a fast-food fish market into a full-scale restaurant. I oversaw the whole operation,” he said.
While being a student by day, he helped change the shape of the spot. He separated the fish market and the dining room into what its layout has been known for since. He got real plates, china and alcohol — not just beer and wine. He helped expand the menu from two pages to 10.
When Luciano finished school, he decided it was time to either move on or take full charge. That’s when he officially purchased the restaurant.
“The original landlord actually gave me the loan to buy the Lobster House from the previous owner because he wanted a long-term tenant,” he said. “He gave me a 14-year lease and the loan to buy them out. Then we just expanded over the time.”
According to Luciano, that lease was up last July. For more than a year before that, he started sending the landlord letters and making phone calls to find out what the next steps were in the terms of their agreement.
Luciano said the landlord was short, and then eventually stopped answering his inquiries altogether.
“I was getting kind of nervous,” he said. “What’s going to happen? What are we going to do?”
He said he met with developers from The Gitto Group. Then he found out that they were in talks to buy the property, where his location sat, for a new planned apartment complex. The group already owns The Hills at Port Jefferson Village, across from Port Jefferson train station, and The Barnum House at the corner of Barnum Avenue and Main Street. The group is also in the middle of creating The Brookport, an apartment complex going up where the old Cappy’s Carpets building once stood.
With the cost of the property being too much for Luciano to buy back on such short notice, he and his team began scrambling to find a new home for the Lobster House. As a member of the Port Jefferson Business Improvement District, he was able to talk to the owner of the mall on Main Street who gave the idea to move into the former hibachi space in the back.
“We talked some numbers, we made a deal and it worked out very beneficial,” Luciano said. “And then we got hit with a pandemic, so then we were like, ‘Well now, what?’”
The cost to move was expensive and with capacity limits, indoor dining restrictions and PPP loan confusions, the COVID-19 crisis made the situation harder.
“It was a rollercoaster ride, for sure,” he said.
But as usual, Luciano made the best of the situation. He began the buildout of the new location throughout the summer with a skeleton staff due to COVID restrictions.
“That being said, I’ve been going 24/7 since the pandemic,” he said. “My last day off was March 23 last year, other than Christmas.”
With the help of the village, local fire department and the Town of Brookhaven, the new PJ Lobster House was able to open the first week of December 2020.
“As soon as we unlocked the door, we’ve been busy ever since,” Luciano said.
The move allowed the restaurant to have lunch specials and more dining space. He brought in a sushi chef and a big bar for quick bites and a drink.
Luciano said that at first he was angry, stressed and betrayed. But six months later, it’s all water under the bridge.
“You know, like the old saying goes, you make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “That’s pretty much what we did here, and I think having to be pushed to move was really beneficial because we really evolved into this animal.”
And while business is better than ever, new struggles ensued in light of the pandemic. Hiring a kitchen staff has become near to impossible and the state Liquor Authority often made threatening visits to Luciano’s business. Parking has been “a nightmare,” and even swayed him to purchase a parking kiosk from the village where older clientele can pay for parking without using the QR reader meters in the back lot.
“We get a huge amount of people that complain on a daily basis about the parking and how to pay for the parking,” he said.
The new kiosk, which personally costed him $2,500 to obtain, now helps visitors pay with a card rather than their phone.
But he continues to power through.
“Overall, I’m extremely happy with the location,” he said. “The clientele is much different, the relationships we’re developing with the people now is much different than what we had uptown.”
The fish market has now gained regular customers, who have started bringing their friends.
“We’ve developed that hometown restaurant the village was kind of lacking where everybody’s going to,” he said.
While Luciano spent his entire career, from teenage busboy to owner, in Port Jefferson, the Coram native and resident said he’d eventually want to settle down here, full time.
“I told the Gittos that I’m waiting for my penthouse on the top from the building that you took from me,” he joked.