Mr. and Mrs. Spressler were expecting a delicious meal at their favorite restaurant when their evening was turned upside down. After noticing something out-of-the-ordinary in their dish, nothing would ever be the same.
Where It All Began
Cape May is one of the tourist backbones of the state of New Jersey. And it's been like that for a long time. As a matter of fact, it's known as one of the United States' oldest tourist destinations!
The entire town's core is listed as a National Historic District, accrediting over 500 buildings with protection from demolition, as they're essentially huge artifacts from the Victorian era. Now, the region is known for great coastal views and appealing cultural events.
Seafood Lover's Paradise
But views and history aside, there's one overwhelming reason why thousands of tourists flock to Cape May's promenade each and every year. And that's the food. Because of its close proximity to the Atlantic coast, Cape May is known as a seafood lover's paradise.
One establishment, in particular, The Lobster House, has gained a legendary reputation for its out-of-this-world menu and unbeatable views of the harbor - which to many look straight out of a postcard. And it's these very reasons that brought the Spresslers to dine at the establishment.
Meet Michael and Maria
Michael and Maria Spressler were in no need of the rundown on why Cape May was such an excellent location and why The Lobster House was second to none. They'd been loyal customers for multiple decades and repeatedly came back to get their seafood fix.
However, amidst all that routine, something changed in 2022. The couple stopped by the New Jersey institution for a night on the town. Great food, drinks, and views were what the couple was expecting. But something far more serendipitous occurred that brought quite a bit of attention their way...
A Sight To Be Seen
But before diving into the Spressler's fateful dining experience, it's worth covering a bit of the restaurant's infamous backstory. The Lobster House wasn't just a New Jersey favorite - it was declared one of the top 50 restaurants in the United States!
And its legacy reaches far back. It originated from The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company in 1926 by Jess Laudeman and his family. Back then, he opened his business in Schellenger's Landing, which most people know as The Lobster House docks these days.
A Rich Backstory
And while the establishment has been around for close to 100 years, it wasn't always known by the same name. Prior to The Lobster House, this Cape May institution went by the name Bateman's. And ownership also jumped around in the early years as Jess Laudeman established himself as a fishing entrepreneur.
But by 1955, Laudeman was the big boss in charge once again, and he decided to keep the restaurant in his family to protect its legacy. So, he passed the reigns over to his son Wally, who was tasked with taking this humble seafood joint into a successful restaurant that people would travel miles for.
And with that, Wally and Marijane, his wife, took charge of the New Jersey restaurant. Their first order of business? A rebrand. They quickly changed the monicker from Bateman's to The Lobster House in order to symbolize the new chapter they were embarking on.
But it wasn't smooth sailing from day one. "We didn't know anything about the restaurant business," Marijane confessed in 2011 when speaking with Cape May magazine. "That first year, we had six booths... five or six tables, and a counter that probably seated 12."
The Legacy Was Born
Slowly but surely, Wally and Marijane got their footing and found their groove with their new business. And they had a loyal customer base that was with them every step of the way. Eventually, business was going so well that they completed a series of expansions, allowing them to welcome more guests at a time.
Now, The Lobster House can feed a whopping 550 people at a time. They've certainly grown a lot since the humble seafood joint it started as. In addition, they also boast a floating cocktail lounge housed in a fishing schooner that Wally purchased back in '65.
A Family Business
Wally and Marijane weren't the only Laudemans who were giving it their all at the Cape May restaurant. Their daughter, Donna practically grew up at The Lobster House and was even hostessing there in 2011. She told Cape May that her mom and dad "worked very, very hard" to get the restaurant to where it is today.
"Both Mom and my Dad decorated the place," she shared with the publication. "Mom shopped for antiques and when I was older, I'd go to New York with her to shop." From top to bottom, it was most definitely a family enterprise, which also had a special role for another Laudeman, who would ensure the legacy would continue.
Passing the Torch
Keith Laudeman, the son of Wally and Marijane, also had a foot in the family business. Back in 2004, after Wally sadly passed away, Keith was tasked with taking over The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company as president. It was a big responsibility, but the family agreed that he flourished in the role.
"Keith has stepped into Dad's shoes really well," his adoring sister shared in the Cape May interview. "I look up to him, almost like a dad." While he may not have been grilling or greeting customers at the door, Keith had The Lobster House in his blood, just like the rest of the family.
A Positive Approach
With so many seafood restaurants in the area, the Laudeman's knew that they needed to stand out from the crowd - no matter how established their joint may have become. And in Keith's eyes, the success of the restaurant was the success of the family. "My job is to make sure everyone leaves the restaurant happy," he assured.
His sister agreed, having learned the ways of customer service from her mother. "Mom taught me how important it is to be nice, have fun, and laugh with our guests," she explained. "I laugh a lot at work." It seemed as though the whole family was on the same page...
The Key to Success
For many of the customers, the fact that The Lobster House had such a long history and was a family business was one of the many charms that brought them back each and every time. And Keith knew that the friendly charm was the key to success for his father's venture.
It was that kind of thinking that spurred his move to have his sister switch to waitressing rather than working in the cocktail bar. "This is where I need you," Donna recalled her brother saying."You're the face of the restaurant. People want to see a Laudeman." And he was absolutely right.
Long Journey to the Top
These days, it's hard to imagine The Lobster House as anything other than a Cape May institution. But for people who know the whole story, it makes the restaurant's success that much more impressive. For Marijane, she can remember the early business days back in 1955.
"I was closing up that night and counting out the money in the cash drawer," she shared in her interview with Cape May. "We only took cash then." From the interior to the technological advancements, the restaurant founder had seen so much change over the years.
"We Had $500"
In the early days, each day for Wally and Marijane was a test because of their lack of background in restaurant management. But despite the obstacles, they found success. "Suddenly I realized we had $500 in the cash drawer," Marijane recalled from that night in 1955.
"That was a lot of money back then," she continued. "It was thrilling! I remember thinking, 'You know what? For two people who know nothing about running a restaurant, we might make this work.'" And while they didn't know it at the time, they would make it work for decades to come...
Becoming a Fan-Favorite
It was a New Jersey coastal institution, and Michael and Maria were long-time fans of the seafood joint. In fact, they'd made a routine of returning to the restaurant over and over again for over 30 years! As Michael shared with NJ Advance Media, it became a routine with a life of its own.
"For all the years that we were going down [to Cape May], as soon as we would get off the Garden State Parkway and go over the bridge, our first stop would be The Lobster House to eat," he explained. "Because to me, they have the best seafood in Jersey."
A Special Occasion
So, based on their love of the restaurant, it was no surprise that the Spresslers found themselves at The Lobster House on this fateful evening in 2022. In fact, they were celebrating their 34th anniversary of eating at the restaurant for the first time! Michael could remember it as clear as day...
"Yeah, we came here for Presidents' Day weekend in 1987," he shared when speaking with CBS News. Whether it was the magic of the occasion or a strike of luck, the two lovebirds tucked in at their beloved seafood joint, unaware of what lay ahead that evening.
Ordering the Regular
With over 30 years of experience with The Lobster House menu, the Spresslers certainly knew their favorite dishes. So, Michael started off with the tried and true dozen half-shell clams. His appetizer of choice, he opted for the dish to come with piping-hot sauce and a lemon wedge on the side.
By this point, Michael couldn't even count the number of times he'd consumed this seafood lover's dish. However, after all these years, the charm hadn't worn off. But on this occasion, a surprise was waiting for him as he worked his way through the pile of fresh seafood.
It was at the moment that Michael indulged in the last clam that something odd happened. "I was down to the 12th one, and when I picked it up with the fork, it looked kind of heavy, but I didn't think nothing of it," Mr. Spressler shared with CBS News.
The weight may have been dismissable, but what happened next certainly caught the loyal diner's attention. "Then I started to eat it, I noticed something was in my mouth. I actually thought one of my teeth broke," he recalled of the out-of-the-ordinary dining experience.
A Precious Surprise
Significantly caught off guard, Michael paused his eating and retrieved the item that had grabbed his attention. Upon a first glance, he realized his first theory was wrong - it wasn't a broken tooth. But that left a world of possibilities open. What was it?
"I actually thought it was like a little stone or something," Michael recalled with New Jersey Advance Media. However, upon closer inspection, he realized he was once again incorrect. "But then, when I poked it out into the palm of my hand, it was a perfectly round white pearl."
“It Was Pretty Exciting”
It was safe to assume that the Spresslers were surprised by the turn of events during their romantic seafood dinner. As Maria put it when speaking with CBS News, "He's eaten dozens and dozens of clams, and we've never found anything like that, so it was pretty exciting."
And the restaurant goers weren't the only ones amazed by the occurrence. An employee at The Lobster House named Sarah Stadnicar also shared the sentiment. "I have worked here for around ten years now, and I've never heard of someone finding one in one of our oysters or clamshells," she gushed.
1 in 10,000
Amazed by the surprise of the nautical gem found in his dish, Michael was inspired to learn more - specifically, how likely such an occurrence was. And upon some quick Googling, he realized that the chances of such a thing happening are about 1 in 10,000.
Further reading revealed that his unlikely souvenir from The Lobster House could cover the restaurant bill and then some! The pearl, which was 8.83 millimeters in size, had great promise of being worth something on the market. Michael and Maria couldn't believe their luck.
Assessing the Value
To the untrained eye, it may be difficult to ballpark the value of a pearl. However, The Pearl Source website does an excellent job at breaking down the parameters for how the appraisal spectrum is laid out. One of the biggest factors is the condition in which the pearl is found.
Secondly, it's about its provenance. According to the site, a pearl found in freshwater can be valued at as little as $50 and can reach prices of $2,000. However, an Akoya saltwater pearl, for example, can be sold on the market for upwards of $6,000! It was all a matter of getting it appraised...
Not In It For the Money
While someone in the Spressler's position may be quick to run to an appraiser to cash in on this unlikely find, that was not the main priority for Maria in particular. According to Michael, his wife "wants to put it in a piece of jewelry or something," he shared with NJ Advance Media.
That didn't satisfy his curiosity, though. "But I've got to get it appraised first, to get some kind of value," he continued. "It could be worth thousands, but I don't know how much it's worth. I really don't know, and I'd like to know." Did his wife agree?
"A Beautiful Remembrance"
While Maria didn't know how much the pearl was worth in actual dollars, she'd already placed quite the sentimental value on the little white drop found in her husband's dish. She had one vision and one vision only when it came to what to do with the pearl...
"I would like to have it set into a nice piece of jewelry, maybe a mermaid or something nautical," she confessed to CBS News when asked. "It's a beautiful remembrance of that day, and what we have is so special. For Maria, the pearl symbolized her 34 years of memories in Cape May...
The Story Went Viral
From fellow diners at The Lobster House to staff and friends of the Spresslers, it didn't take long for word to spread about Michael and Maria's treasure-filled dinner. And consequently, there was a big spike in interest when it came to the seafood joint.
The attention was so persistent that it even reached upper management, and Keith Laudeman was sucked into the frenzy! "People all over the country are calling me," the business owner shared with TODAY Food. But this was no burden - it was bringing customers through the door!
A True Rarity
While The Lobster House, Michael, and Maria all reveled in their serendipitous experience, others shared their own stories that further proved the fact that the surprise pearl in the appetizer truly was a unique coincidence. Though they weren't the first, it wasn't common by any means.
Take the incident at the Stern & Bow restaurant in North Jersey. When a customer found a pearl in an oyster, it rocked pearl expert Kevin Joseph's world. "I've shucked hundreds of thousands of oysters and have never found a pearl," he explained of the true rarity.
Not the Only One
And while people like Kevin Joseph revel in the unstacked odds of coming across a pearl, others hold an opposing view. Josh Bedea, for example, spends his days shucking oysters in the coastal region of Ocean County. And in his opinion, it's not that rare.
"It happens to people more often than you'd think," the expert explained when speaking with Asbury Park Press. While opinions vary, it's clear that this restaurant surprise is most certainly not an everyday occurrence. But the reality of appraisal can pop the bubble for some...
Decreasing In Value
Back in 2018, Rick Antosh joined the coveted pearl club while dining at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. Shocked by the discovery, he checked with the restaurant to see if this was a common occurrence. He was informed that what had happened to him was a first for the restaurant!
Antosh was on cloud nine with the lucky find and only became more excited when the initial appraisal valued the pearl at $4,000. However, that euphoria came crashing down when the final value was placed at a measly $400. Would the Spresslers face the same fate?
Luck On Their Side
The deciding factor that normally proves to be detrimental during the pearl appraisal process is its dimensions. And while many found to be disappointed when their pearl was determined to be lumpy and irregular, the Spresslers truly lucked out with their appetizer gem.
As Eric Morris of Local 130 Seafood pointed out, a uniformly round pearl like Michael's was incredibly rare. "Calcium does form in oysters and clams, but rarely like it does in the pearl found [in The Lobster House]," he explained. "We have yet to find a pearl in an oyster or clam, but we are trying every day!"
The Big Reveal
The fact of the matter is pretty simple: finding a pearl while dining at a seafood joint may be a rare occasion, but it's hardly considered a fast-track ticket to retirement. To the untrained eye, we may think that it may be worth big bucks, but the final word ultimately comes from the appraisers.
Forty Noth Oysters' Matt Gregg can testify to that dose of reality thanks to his own experience with finding pearls. "They were very small, and I showed a jeweler. He said one was worth less than $3," he confessed. Well, one man's trash is another person's treasure, right?
An Expert's Tip
And as far as Maria Spressler's considered, no price tag will change her plans for the special surprise found in her husband's dish. But for those hoping to experience such a surprise like Maria and Michael, there's a helpful tip when it comes to hunting for pearls!
According to skilled oyster and clam shuckers, the prize lies in the more irregular-looking shells. In fact, the rule of thumb is that the lumpier the shell is, the higher chance there is of finding a pearl inside! Of course, a reservation at The Lobster House might just do the trick...