If you watch the news, dine out, or both, you already know—everything is more expensive right now. But as of this moment, nothing seems quite as pricey as already-pricey lobster—at least for the businesses that specialize in it. Some restaurants are charging market price, which clocks in at $100 per two-pound lobster (pre-tax) at DC steakhouse The Prime Rib. Other places with lower check points are 86-ing lobster for now.
A specific combination of factors are impacting the crustacean’s price and availability. James Ford of family-owned distributor Samuels Seafood points to a variety of causes: the Maine lobster catch dropped off early this year; the Canadian season started two weeks later than usual; labor shortages abound within the lobster industry; and high demand within the US around Valentine’s Day and in China for Lunar New Year consumed a considerable amount of the stock.
“We will see price remain high until the second or third week in April,” he projects. “This is when Newfoundland [Canada] season generally floods the market, and water temps begin to warm, which makes lobsters more active.”
In the meantime, restaurants like New England-style seafood spot The Salt Line—hugely popular for its lobster rolls—are hitting pause on the delicacy.
“Lobster rolls just aren’t meant to be that expensive. It’s almost embarrassing to pass that cost to our guest,” says partner Jeremy Carman, 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 businesses, though, removing the headliner isn’t 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 has slowly raised prices, dollar by dollar, so that the once-$15 roll is now $19. Rusty Kurtov, owner of Mason’s Dupont Circle location, says he’s added a warm shrimp roll as an option for customers who want a similar flavor for a gentler $13 price. He says customers have been, for the most part, understanding.
“Since we are selling lobster, people already expect a different price point than burgers and pizza,” says Kurtov. Still, he worries about the future. “Honestly it’s not just lobster—we see price hikes on everything: soup cups, paper, plastic. We’re considering another dollar increase right now.”
Meanwhile some full-service restaurateurs are wary of price increases. Hank’s Oyster Bar chef/owner Jamie Leeds, whose lobster rolls have become locally famous over nearly two decades, raised the price by a dollar to $29 per roll last year at her three New England-inspired eateries. But Leeds says she’d rather eat the cost—sometimes 30 to 50 percent higher than average—to keep up her goal of being “a good value restaurant with high quality product.”
“There’s always a rhythm to the pricing of lobster. It’s not like when it’s down, we lower the price,” says Leeds. “My philosophy is we’e not going to make people pay when it’s higher. Even though it’s extraordinarily higher.”
Others are meeting the issue half-way. 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. He’s taken a Monday night $25 lobster deal off the menu, but still serves the steamed delicacy for those willing to pay a premium.
“We’re staying straight. We’re not playing with the portion for the price. We say ‘market price’ on the menu, and then break the bad news when someone wants to enjoy it,” says Casten, who says a whole lobster (two pounds) goes for around $90.
A veteran in the seafood industry for over 40 years, Casten is doubtful that lobster—and a lot of other kinds of sustainable seafood—will be as accessible, price-wise, as before the pandemic.
“I think you’ll see prices come down, but they’ll never come down to the availability they were before” says Casten. “A lot of people got out of the [fishing] business. No one with a skill set wants to do it. Just wait until you see the cost of crab meat—nobody wants to do it.”