Most people consider lobster a delicacy reserved for fine-dining restaurants. But because of a supply glut that is bringing wholesale prices down, the tasty crustacean is showing up on more than just white tablecloths.
Uno Chicago Grill, for example, offered lobster sliders, a lobster wrap, a lobster roll, and lobster and shrimp scampi on its Best of Summer menu, and D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches continues to promote its Lobster Nation Lineup.
The slogan for Boston-based Uno’s promotion, “Way deeper than pizza,” highlights lobster’s ability to add pizzazz to a menu, says Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Council.
“When you introduce something like lobster, it opens up a whole new area of discovery for the customer,” Somers says. “There’s only so much you can do with burgers and chicken.”
Too often quick-service restaurants bent on offering the lowest prices get caught in a “race to the bottom,” Somers says, and forget about their obligation to “delight the customer.” While lobster dishes tend to cost more than other protein-based items, Somers says customers are often willing to splurge for an unexpected treat.
“Maybe it’s a couple more dollars,” he says, “but it’s interesting, it’s exciting. And for the restaurant operator, it puts your restaurant on a slightly higher plane.”
Of course, Somers has an interest in marketing the clawed crustacean as the cure for the common menu. The lobster industry has taken a beating since the global economy nearly collapsed late last year. In the aftermath, demand plummeted for lobster, which, despite efforts to dress it down, remains in a culinary echelon with delicacies like caviar and foie gras.
With so much supply—Maine alone harvested 68 million pounds of lobster last year, according to Somers—and so little demand, prices have dropped. A pound of hardshell went for $3.25 in spring, down from about $5. A pound of softshell lobster, or “shedders,” is selling for $2.50, down a dollar from last year. With a month-and-a-half of prime lobster hunting left, prices might fall even lower if demand doesn’t pick up.
While this is good news for restaurants looking to spice up their menus, it is terrible for lobster trappers whose businesses, in many cases, are on the verge of ruin.
“I call it the slow death,” Brian McLain, vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, says about the falling prices.
Like many lobstermen, McLain is losing money on every pound he hauls in.
“I need a minimum of $3.50 per pound to turn a profit and we’re getting $2.50 per pound,” McLain says.
In the long term, such bargain-basement prices pose a grave threat to the salt of the lobster industry. But in the short term, the lobstermen’s pain is the restaurant operator’s gain.
“This is the best year I’ve seen in a long time to try to capitalize on adding lobster to your menu, at least as a special,” says Steve Kingston, owner of Kennebunkport, Maine, quick-serve The Clam Shack.
“At some point [prices] can’t go any lower because guys have to make a living. But I think this year we might find out what that threshold is.”