Lobster is so expensive now that restaurants are removing it from menus
If you watch the news, dine out, or both, you already know that everything is more expensive right now. But from this point on, nothing seems as expensive as the already expensive lobster, at least for the companies that specialize in it. Some restaurants charge market price, which is $100 a two-pound lobster (before tax) at DC steakhouse The Prime Rib. Other locations with lower checkpoints are 86-ing Lobster for now.
A specific combination of factors impacts the price and availability of the crustacean. James Ford of family-owned retailer Samuels Seafood points to various causes: Maine lobster catches plummeted earlier this year; the Canadian season started two weeks later than usual; labor shortages abound in the lobster industry; and high demand in the United States around Valentine’s Day and in China for Lunar New Year consumed a considerable amount of the stock.
“We will see prices stay high until the second or third week of April,” he predicts. “That’s when Newfoundland [Canada] the season usually floods the market and water temperatures begin to warm, making the lobsters more active.
In the meantime, restaurants like New England-style seafood restaurant The Salt Line, popular for its lobster rolls, are taking a break from the delicacy.
“Lobster rolls just aren’t supposed to be that expensive. It’s almost embarrassing to pass that cost on to our customers,” says Jeremy Carman, a partner who sources seafood from Samuels. The Salt Line’s solution: Launch new shrimp and clam rolls at their Navy Yard and Ballston locations, both hot and cold to fill the lobster void.
For lobster-roll companies, however, removing the headliner isn’t quite as easy. Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, an Annapolis-based franchise with five locations around Washington, works year-round with a lobster wholesaler in Portland, Maine, for its meat. Mason’s slowly raised prices, dollar by dollar, so the once $15 roll is now $19. Rusty Kurtov, owner of Mason’s Dupont Circle location, says he’s added an optional hot shrimp roll for customers who want a similar flavor for a milder price of $13. He says customers have been, for the most part, understanding.
“Since we’ve been selling lobster, people already expect a different price than burgers and pizza,” Kurtov says. Yet he worries about the future. “Honestly, it’s not just lobster – we’re seeing price increases on everything: soup cups, paper, plastic. We are looking at another rise in the dollar right now.
Meanwhile, some full-service restaurateurs are wary of price increases. Chef and owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar, Jamie Leeds, whose lobster rolls have become locally famous for nearly two decades, raised the price by a dollar to $29 per roll last year at his three restaurants inspired by New England. But Leeds says it prefers to eat cost – sometimes 30-50% higher than average – to maintain its aim of being “a good value restaurant with high quality produce”.
“There is always a rhythm in the price of lobster. It’s not like when it’s down, we lower the price,” says Leeds. “My philosophy is that we’re not going to charge people when it’s higher. Even if it is extraordinarily higher.
Others tackle the problem halfway. Boston-born Greg Casten founded DC’s sustainable seafood wholesaler ProFish and is a partner in the Fish & Fire Food Group, which runs popular waterfront spots like Tony and Joe’s in Georgetown and the new Point. It removed a $25 lobster offering from the menu on Monday nights, but still serves the steamed delicacy for those willing to pay extra.
“We stay straight. We do not play with the portion for the price. We say ‘market price’ on the menu and then announce the bad news when someone wants to enjoy it,” says Casten, who says a whole lobster (two pounds) costs about $90.
A veteran of the seafood industry for more than 40 years, Casten doubts that lobster — and many other types of sustainable seafood — are as accessible, price-wise, as they were before the pandemic.
“I think you’ll see the prices go down, but they’ll never come back to the availability they were before,” Casten says. “A lot of people have come out of [fishing] business. Nobody with a skill set wants to do it. Wait until you see the price of crab meat, no one wants to do that.