One of the many advantages of a roll from McLoons in South Thomaston is that you can order it prepared with half-mayo and half-butter.Photo Credit : Amy Traverso
There’s an old bit of lore that lobster were once so cheap and common that they were fed to Colonial era prisoners. The inmates grew so tired of lobster day and night that they rioted for better rations. It’s a great story, but there’s no archeological or archival research to back it up.
What is true is that lobsters, like most things, used to be much less expensive than they are now. And in recent years you may have notice the cost of your favorite lobster roll ticking up at an alarming rate. So we set out to answer this question: Why are lobster rolls so expensive?
In Connecticut, Angela Morander and Rachel Steponkus, the new(ish) owners of Lobster Landing since they bought the business from their longtime bosses, Enea and Cathie Bacci, two years ago. Morander pointed to many reasons for the price hikes (the current cost of a Lobster Landing roll is $26.50), but emphasized three: the quality of the meat, sourcing challenges, and the labor-intensive nature or roll-making.
“We tell people all the time, sometimes we’re a little bit pricier than other places,” Morander says. “If a roll is less expensive, you’re probably not getting the tail. And in my opinion, the tail meat is better. It’s sweeter. So we put the tail, knuckle, and claw in our rolls. Some lobster shacks only buy knuckle and claw meat, or meat that’s been previously frozen.” This is because there’s a separate market for lobster tails, which can be sold to restaurants for, say, a classic surf-and-turf plate.
For most of Lobster Landing’s 28-year history, local lobsters from Long Island Sound were plentiful and easy to source. In recent years, “We take whatever we can get,” Morander says. “Some of our local fishermen will only bring us 8 ½ pounds of live lobster at a time. So we’re having to get ours from Maine and Canada.” Those added transportation costs add up, especially given the cost of fuel.
Then there’s the cost of labor. “We have the guys in the back set up with a big pot of boiling water who cook the lobsters, cut and crack the shells, pick all the meat out, pick through the cartilage and veins, and cut that up and bag it into quarter-pound bags.,” Morander says. “With the existing team, they’re doing it all day, non-stop.” It takes about one 1-1/4-pound hard-shell lobster to produce enough meat for a quarter-pound lobster roll. As summer goes on, the soft-shell lobsters of the same weight usually contain less meat and more water.
Up in South Thomaston, Maine, where a McLoon’s roll costs $27 this season, owner Bree Birns has been watching the lobster market her entire life: the McLoon’s shack is an outgrowth of her family’s wholesale lobster business. “The cost of a live lobster and of lobster meat are two separate things,” Doughty says. “The market price is very different. With meat, you factor in the labor that goes into the processing.” And prices are always fluctuating. Live lobster prices have ranged from $3 to $10 per pound in recent years and Birns says it’s hovering around $8 at the moment. And wholesale lobster meat has ranged from about $30 to $40 per pound of late.
It’s not just the meat, though. “The cost of everything has gone up,” she says. “The increased cost of labor, the cost of the food tray we serve the rolls in, the bag of chips we serve with the rolls, the cabbage for the coleslaw, the cost of fuel for the boats, bait has gone way up. Things have changed, and it’s not just a temporary COVID bump. This is what it costs now.”
With all that said, there are ways to ensure that you’re getting the best value for your roll.
1. Ask if the meat is fresh or frozen. One telltale sign: if the kitchen pre-mixes the meat with the mayonnaise and lets it sit, it’s more likely they’re using frozen meat, since a long bath in mayo masks the flavor and changes the texture.
2. Look for restaurants that use tail meat as well as claw and knuckle meat. If you’re going to pay a premium, you should get the premium cuts.
3. Ask exactly how much meat is in the roll. Typically, restaurants portion out somewhere between three and six ounces.
4. Be on the lookout for the overuse of fillers like celery or lettuce. They’ll fill a bun but they’re not what you came for.
5. Remember that lobster rolls are a special treat and not an everyday food. Enjoy them whenever you can.
Do you have a favorite place to get a good price on a lobster roll in New England? Let us know in the comments below!