Sometimes, an idea is so good that it just takes off. Such is the case with Alive & Kicking Lobsters, a wholesale lobster business in Cambridge-turned-popular summer lunch spot.
First reported by Boston Restaurant Talk, the 20-plus-year-old business is in the throes of a zoning issue and began circulating a petition to garner support as the process may head toward a public hearing.
Owner Louis Mastrangelo, who declined to talk to Eater for this story, started selling fresh lobster from a truck on his Putnam Ave. property in the late 1980s or early 1990s, his niece, Kim Casey, said. Over the past decade, the business has grown to include prepared lunches — steamers, chowders, and most notably, a simple, buttery, lobster sandwich.
"He's well-respected. He's famous in Tokyo. We have people that literally come from out-of-state and this is on their list," Casey said. Alive & Kicking has received local and national press, including being featured on an episode of "Man Finds Food" on the Travel Channel.
But — apparently only recently — it has come to the City of Cambridge's attention that the Alive & Kicking Lobsters property was never actually granted the proper approval to operate a retail business, let alone as something that can often look like a counter-service restaurant. Mastrangelo's street is a residential neighborhood, and it's one of his neighbors who voiced concern about his business to the city.
"It’s clear that he is an example of a small business success," said Sarah Smith, proprietor of Cambridge Bed and Muffin, a bed-and-breakfast next door. "But I’m suffering because of his success."
She said when Alive and Kicking customers sit at the picnic tables Mastrangelo set up in his backyard, she often makes eye contact with them through her living room or kitchen windows. A large fan blowing in the lobster business' garage makes noise and carries a smell to her yard. And while some of her own guests include positive experiences of lunching at the lobster shop when reviewing her bed-and-breakfast, she said she has heard "here and there" from guests who are "surprised and a little uncomfortable" about the operation going on next door.
Earlier this summer, "I decided to put a request to enforce the zoning in writing because a year ago I had made an inquiry, and nothing happened," Smith said.
While Smith said she and Cambridge Inspectional Services commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam sat down last year and had a discussion about her issues with the property next door, the commissioner said her recent letter was the first written complaint the department has ever received regarding Alive & Kicking.
Mastrangelo is permitted in other ways to serve food — his business is regularly inspected and it is ServSafe Certified. But, "They started this business without approval from the city," Singanayagam said. "They came to the [Zoning Board of Appeals] for ... a variance to build a garage and an office space on top. Without proper permission from this office, they converted it into selling lobster."
After receiving Smith's formal complaint, his office issued a cease and desist order, which Mastrangelo can appeal. The process is ongoing, and Mastrangelo's lawyer who is dealing with the municipal code aspects of this issue was not available by deadline to comment on the business owner's plan of action. The lobsterman's longtime counsel, Odin Anderson, said, "If there’s any non-compliance on his part at all … this is a long-standing business with a large and satisfied clientele, and he would do whatever he needs to do to continue that."
That's where the petition comes into play. Anderson helped draft it, and Casey put it on the web. "The petition just shows people enjoy Alive & Kicking," Casey said.
Since it was posted August 5, it has garnered more than 1,400 signatures. Singanayagam said this will be a useful document if Alive & Kicking goes before the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance. "They have to present a good case, [show] there’s use for this kind of use in the neighborhood, this doesn’t create any mess, noise, or smell," he said, regarding what a hypothetical public hearing would entail.
But to Smith, the 21-and-counting comments on the online petition make her feel like "the most villainized person in Cambridge."
Casey and Anderson said the issues between Mastrangelo and Smith go back decades — Smith moved in in 1993, before Mastrangelo built his garage — and are wide-ranging.
"I think if they got along, there wouldn’t be an issue," Casey said. "It’s just odd how a business can run for as long as it can without things it’s supposed to have, and 20 years down the line, it’s suddenly an issue."
Smith's ideal resolution is, of course, that Mastrangelo move his operation to a neighborhood better suited to host a lobster shack. But at nearly 80 years old, the lobsterman is unlikely to uproot his business, Anderson said.
How the issue will be resolved is an open question, but according to Mastrangelo's niece Kim Casey, "The petition shows him that whatever happens, people have said thank you."