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Consider the $ 34 lobster roll

WISCASSET, Maine – On the first weekend of June, the scene at Red’s Eats looked a lot like summer past. The line of tourists waiting to order at this quaint seafood shack rushed down the block. The sun went down and the employees handed out umbrellas and water, the kind of cuteness you give when your restaurant makes “best of” lists and causes traffic jams to attract people from all over the country.

Red’s menu featured his usual dish of sea scallops, whole fried clams and his most famous dish, a fresh lobster roll, “stacked high.”

The only change was the price: this year the lobster roll is $ 30.

“Are you kidding me?” said Bindu Gajria, who was on vacation in Philadelphia and hadn’t checked out the menu before standing in line. “I was going to order one, but now I have my doubts.”

And $ 30 was a good deal. Two weeks earlier, as reported in the Bangor Daily News, Red’s was selling the sandwich for $ 34 – barely $ 136 to feed a family of four.

Along the northeastern coast of the United States, the price of lobster – and therefore lobster rolls – is reaching historic highs, say the restaurateurs who serve them.

“The most that it has ever been,” said Steve Kingston, owner of Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine, which charges $ 24.95 for his lobster roll this summer.

Last year the lobster roll cost $ 18.95, but the price of the lobster meat “was so high that we had no choice but to go much higher,” he said. he declares.

At Lobster Landing in Clinton, Connecticut, a restaurant that earned Yankee magazine praise for its roll, the cost is up 75 cents from last year, to $ 19.75.

“For us, a family of four, it’s $ 80 and then sales tax, which has nothing to do with me,” said Enea Bacci, an owner. “All around us it’s $ 21, $ 22, $ 24. For me, I didn’t want to go for $ 22 and shock people.

As with used cars and homes, soaring lobster meat prices are, in part, a matter of supply and demand exacerbated by the pandemic. Home cooks, stuck inside during the lockdown, have turned to all kinds of seafood to expand their palates and learn new cooking skills over the past year.

“The processing industry demands a lot of meat,” said Dick Douty, owner of Douty Bros., a lobster wholesaler and processor in Portland, Maine. “There are more players, and there are no more lobsters.”

Is the inflation of the lobster roll, dare we say it, transient? It is true that catches tend to be lower in May and June and increase in July and August, as lobsters migrate to shore with rising water temperatures.

But the lobster industry is also “inefficient by design,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association.

There are approximately 4,500 licensed lobster fishermen in the state of Maine, and each fishing vessel is an independent operator. “The fishery and the supply chain are completely disconnected,” Ms. Tselikis said. “I can’t tell these boats to go fishing” if a captain decides to take a day off.

And when it comes to processing, she added, “We don’t have a lot of automation in this industry because we are dealing with an animal that has two big claws, eight legs, a tail and an exoskeleton. . For that lobster to get out of the ocean and reach a consumer, it’s an incredible process. It’s not a hot dog. It’s not a burger.

All of this has resulted in an epic mismatch between supply and demand so far this year. So epic, in fact, that Red’s opened in April with no lobster on the menu. It’s like Peter Luger opens up without a steak.

But the lobster boats that Red buys from didn’t have good harvests, even offshore. So it either had to be done without until live lobster was available, or served frozen meat – an option that Red’s owner Debbie Gagnon called “a stake in the heart.”

Dressed in a red t-shirt and baseball cap, Ms. Gagnon spoke to a reporter through the order window, where she simultaneously scribbled on a notepad and made announcements over the loudspeaker (“Welcome at Red’s Get ready for the best lunch in Maine!… Last weekend, Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon lined up… ”).

“Frozen lobster is like wet cardboard,” she said. “And that’s not who we are. I would never have, never serve frozen lobster.

Just down the hill from Red’s, another lobster shack, Sprague’s Lobster, sold its roll for $ 25.95, and you didn’t have to queue. Further up the coast, at McCloon’s Lobster Shack on Sprucehead Island, the roll was $ 19.95. Then there was Mr. Bacci in Connecticut with his roll of 20 cents off.

Has there been a scam of tourists by some restaurants? Or are the varying prices an indication of each restaurant’s approach to the roll?

McCloon’s owners, including Mr. Douty, also own a wharf, where they provide lobster boats with bait and fuel and directly buy lobsters, making supply less of a problem. They stuff their $ 20 lobster roll with four ounces of meat.

Red’s serves a buttered bun that contains so much meat – about eight ounces – that the bun is invisible. Decreasing portion sizes would be another issue in the heart.

Ms. Gagnon hopes to lower the price as the supply increases. But many restaurants set the price of the lobster roll early in the season and maintain it. Mr. Kingston, who tends to operate that way, said pricing his 5½-ounce roll was “painful” this year.

“I worry about this stuff,” he said. “We’re on people’s bucket lists. They will say to me, ‘We went out of the exit to come here. We understand that you are serving the bushes. But there comes a time. “

How much is that too much for a summer culinary tradition?

“I didn’t think we were there at $ 24.95, but I was worried,” Mr. Kingston said. “I’m pretty sure we’re not selling as many as we were in 2019.”

Places like the Clam Shack, which has won the Lobster Roll Rumble multiple times, and Red’s, may have pricing power, at least during tourist season – especially after the lost summer of last year, so that Americans travel and embrace life once again outside of their homes.

Steve Pulliam and his wife, Allison, who were among those waiting in the scorching sun at Red’s, had come from Fayetteville, Ark., To be there. Visiting Maine was “on the to-do list,” Ms. Pulliam said.

Did the price of $ 30 (plus tax) for a lobster roll make them think?

“No, because it’s probably the only time this summer that I’ll have a lobster roll,” Pulliam said. It was also his first time.

After idling in the queue for 40 minutes, the couple approached the window. They ordered two lobster rolls, scallops, fries and two sodas. Total cost: “Ninety dollars even, my dear,” said Ms. Gagnon.

Mr. Pulliam had already justified it: “I’m glad I didn’t bring the children.

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