$35 Lobster Rolls? Shelling Out For Lobster Is Nothing New

Then and now, whenever the price of Maine lobster jumps, restaurants around the country feel the pinch.

$35 Lobster Rolls? Shelling Out For Maine Lobster Is Nothing New
Photograph by Mark Fleming
By Will Grunewald
From our July 2022 issue

It’s not just from Eastport to Kittery that astronomical lobster prices make the news. Per the New York Times: “A scarcity of Maine lobsters has pushed the retail price sky high and has caused some restaurants to remove the shellfish from their menus.” DC’s Washingtonian magazine reported much the same: “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.” But national hand-wringing over Maine’s catch is nothing new: that Washingtonian story appeared a few months ago, while the Times piece ran almost exactly 50 years before.

Back in 1972, storms kept much of the lobstering fleet at its moorings heading into the spring. At the same time, demand for Maine lobster was surging across the country, beyond the traditional East Coast markets, and supply couldn’t keep pace. “In the Portland retail market, chicken lobsters, or those softshell crustaceans that weigh from three-fourths to one pound each, were selling for $3.19 a pound,” the Times noted then. “As recently as last November, housewives could purchase the same lobsters for about $1.39 a pound.”

Amid the pandemic, the cost of lobster has spiked again, driven in part by new demand from home cooks expanding their repertoires. Last year, Red’s Eats, the iconic lobster shack on Route 1 in Wiscasset, had to open without lobster on the menu, and at the docks, lobster prices were up 39 percent from just two years earlier. This year, labor shortages, a slow start to the season, and inflated diesel prices pushed the value of lobster even higher. In Maine, the humble lobster roll topped $30 at some shacks, and circumstances weren’t better elsewhere. “Lobster rolls just aren’t meant to be that expensive,” Washingtonian quoted a DC restaurateur. “It’s almost embarrassing to pass that cost to our guest.”

During that other run on lobster, half a century ago, the owner of a Portland steak-and-seafood restaurant told the Times, “I’d have to ask $12 for a lobster dinner, and I don’t think Maine people should have to pay that kind of price for a delicacy that’s found right off our shore.” That’s the equivalent of about $83 today — maybe shelling out $30 for a lobster roll isn’t so bad after all? “You know, when people have it in their minds that they are going to eat lobster, they’ll order it regardless of the price,” another restaurant owner mused to the Times in 1972. Prices may change, but other things never do.