Meaghan Maurice of Portland gets set to bite into a lobster roll from Cousins Maine Lobster’s first Maine food truck. The company sells lobster rolls for less in Los Angeles than in Maine. Staff photo by Derek Davis

FREEPORT — David and Elizabeth Klett and three of their children dug into a lunch of three lobster rolls and two big orders of fried clams Thursday at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster in South Freeport.

They paid $15.95 for the lobster rolls, which is nearly a dollar more than the usual price of $15. But that was just fine with the Kletts. The night before they had paid $22 per roll at Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland.

If he’d known how much it was going to cost (the Sea Dog menu just said “market price”), David Klett said, “I wouldn’t have gotten it.”

This is the time of year, as seasonal seafood shacks open ahead of the summer onslaught of tourists, that people shake off the last of the winter doldrums and order their first lobster roll of the season. Many of them, like the Kletts, are experiencing sticker shock.

Fans of Red’s Eats in Wiscasset were surprised last week to see what are perhaps the state’s most famous lobster rolls selling for $26.50. That’s the highest price owner Debbie Gagnon said she has ever charged for a lobster roll, though by Wednesday the price had dropped to $23.

Wintry weather and a cool spring have limited supply, as lobsters have stayed put offshore and lobstermen have stayed home, waiting for the lobsters to migrate closer to shore with warmer water. Add in the international competition for Maine lobster in Europe and Asia, and lobster prices are becoming harder than ever to predict.

“My family are lobster fishermen, and they don’t even have their traps out here yet,” Gagnon said. “So we need warm weather.”

A ‘VERY DIFFERENT’ PRODUCT

Just five years ago, Maine experienced such a glut of lobsters, thanks to an unusually warm spring, that prices plummeted and lobster rolls were selling for less than $10. The rock bottom prices even sparked protests among Canadian lobstermen, who complained that Maine dealers were flooding their processors with lobsters, undermining their own industry and pricing.

Lobster “is very different from a lot of other products you’ll find from Maine or around the world,” notes Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. “It is sometimes true that the product is more expensive in winter and spring, but those prices vary dramatically from year to year.”

Maine lobstermen landed more lobsters in 2016 than ever, bringing in more than 130 million pounds valued at more than $500 million, “but the demand is still incredibly high,” Tselikis said.

A 1¼-pound hardshell lobster reached an average wholesale price of $12 per pound back in April, according to commodity news reporting service Urner Barry, compared with $10.15 per pound at the same time last year and $7.15 in 2012. By early May, that price had dropped to $8.13 per pound. Claw and knuckle meat is averaging $26.75 per pound, after reaching a high of $29.75 last summer. It retails for $50 a pound or more.

Lobster meat vs. Big Mac prices since 2007

Lobster prices have inflated much more quickly than the prices for other foods in the past two years. From 2010 to 2015, the wholesale price for a quarter-pound of picked lobster meat (the amount found in a typical lobster roll) tracked closely to the price of a Big Mac. But lobster prices surged in 2016, and in January of this year, the wholesale price for a quarter-pound of lobster meat cost 36% more than the retail price for a Big Mac.

Lobster price data courtesy of Urner Barry; historic Big Mac price data courtesy of The Economist.
Chart by Christian MilNeil | @c_milneil

At Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster, the staff picks the meat for the lobster rolls themselves. The price of a lobster roll there had been $15 “forever,” said manager Brendan Altiero, but boat prices are high. Factor in labor costs for picking the meat, and the price of a lobster roll had to go up 95 cents.

“It’s typical supply and demand, and there’s not a lot of fishing effort right now,” he said. “It will change soon. It’s not horribly abnormal for this time of year, but it’s definitely (more expensive).”

Zander Klett, 8, picks lobster off his lobster roll Thursday at Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster Co. in Freeport. The Klett family is visiting Maine from their home in Cambridge, England. Zander’s parents, David and Elizabeth Klett, didn’t mind paying $15.95 for lobster rolls – especially since they had paid $22 per roll the night before at Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Many smaller lobster shacks say they are charging more for a lobster roll this spring than they ever have before, but they also point out that prices are already dropping.

At The Lobster Shack in Cape Elizabeth, the price of a lobster roll this spring reached an all-time high of $19.99 but is now down to $17.99. Manager Phil Mullin said fresh lobster meat got up to $55 a pound, “which is the highest I’ve ever seen it.”

“We’ve already dropped $2 so far,” he said, “and normally as the season progresses and the shedders hit, it just keeps coming down.”

Sandy Owens, owner of Day’s Crabmeat & Lobster, a roadside take-out place in Yarmouth that picks its own lobster meat, also is charging a record price, up a dollar to $16.99. She expects the price to drop in the coming weeks.

“We’re just a couple or three weeks behind,” she said. “We’re not too bad off.”

Carlene York, a Yarmouth resident who was eating a Day’s lobster roll in her friend’s red pick-up, said she thinks the price was “a lot.”

“But if you want it,” she said, “you want it.”

Helen Tamul of Stoughton, Massachusetts, and her husband stopped at Day’s for a crab roll on their drive up the Maine coast. Their final destination for the day was to be Wiscasset, where Tamul could indulge in her favorite lobster roll at Red’s Eats. She was shocked when told how much she would be paying for that lobster roll.

The menu at Day’s Crabmeat & Lobster in Yarmouth on Thursday shows its record price of $16.99 for a lobster roll. Sandy Owens, the owner, expects the price to drop in the coming weeks. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“If I’ve come all this way, yes, I’m going to pay it,” said the 90-year-old, who remembers when lobster sold for 25 cents a pound. “But then I won’t have lobster for a long time.”

While a drop in prices seems likely as lobster supply increases, it’s impossible to predict just what the lobster market will do, Tselikis said, especially with worldwide demand up.

In 2012, the lobster season got off to an early start when warmer-than-usual waters caused lobsters to move into shore early and shed their shells. The lobster industry was faced with an unprecedented early glut of lobsters, Tselikis explained.

Some of the lobsters were absorbed into the domestic live market, and some went to processors. Companies that had never been able to afford lobster suddenly found themselves able to “play around with it,” Tselekis said.

“Whether it was a fast casual restaurant or a fast-food business, or this surge we’re seeing in food trucks around the country and lobster fast-casual, that all really started to change very quickly,” she said. “Fast forward five years, we’re still dealing with this real desire for lobster and lobster products. The supply has leveled off. We’ve landed more lobster in Maine in 2016 than we ever had before, but the demand is still incredibly high. It’s a great thing for our industry.”

STRONG DEMAND ABROAD

There is also strong demand in Europe and Asia, where large lobsters are being used for sashimi in large cities such as Seoul or Taipei.

“They’ll flash cook them for about 30 seconds or a minute, just to separate the meat from the shell, and then extract the meat raw and just dice it up,” Tselikis said.

Smaller lobsters are added to buffets for weddings, holidays and other events.

Luke’s Lobster is now selling lobster rolls in Tokyo.

The Kletts – the family eating lobster rolls at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster – used to live in Maine before moving to Cambridge, England, and are back in the states to see their son graduate from the University of Maine. They said they can get lobster in Europe, but it’s still much more expensive than what they pay here. In England, eating lobster in a restaurant easily costs $70 or more.

“They don’t have steamed lobster with drawn butter like we do,” said Elizabeth Klett. “It would be prepared in something.”

Dennis Owens, co-owner of Day’s Crabmeat & Lobster in Yarmouth, pulls lobsters out of the steamer Friday. His lobster rolls prices are at their highest, at $16.99, but are expected to drop as the season advances. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Still, they’ve been surprised by the cost of lobster rolls on this visit.

“I understand – if they can sell them overseas and make a ton of money, why wouldn’t you?” said David Klett, who was once stationed at the Brunswick Naval Air Station and now works for the U.S. Department of Defense. “But what does it mean for your average person here? It used to be that you could get some lobsters and feed your family.”

When Sarah Sutton and her husband started the Bite Into Maine food truck in 2011, they charged $13 for lobster rolls. Recently they were priced at $17.50, but the Suttons just bumped that up to $17.95, a high for the business. Sutton said she likes keeping her prices as stable as possible.

“There’s only so much we can really charge before it’s just too much,” she said. “We don’t want to go over the $20 mark, but again we move with the market so that’s going to depend. If the market continues to go up, we might have to do that.”

The pricing of lobster puzzles Sutton as much as anyone else. Despite the record catch last year, she notes, her business’ costs never went down. “Our prices last year were 30 percent higher than 2015,” she said. “Is it because so much more lobster was shipped overseas?”

That’s probably the case, Tselikis said.

CHEAPER IN LOS ANGELES

Even more puzzling, a lobster roll made with Maine lobster costs less in Los Angeles than it does in Portland.

Jim Tselikis (Annie Tselikis’ brother) and Sabin Lomac, owners of Cousins Maine Lobster, just launched their first Maine-based food truck and are charging $16.99 for a lobster roll. Their other corporate-owned truck, located in Los Angeles, sells them for $16. And while some of their franchisees in other cities have raised their prices by 50 to 75 cents over the last 10 months, the highest price charged by one of their franchised trucks is $16.50, in Phoenix.

In Maine, lobsters are abundant just out our back door, and there are no high transportation costs to bulk up prices. So why aren’t Mainers getting the better deal?

It’s all about consumer perception, Jim Tselekis said. Out west, people are less informed about lobster pricing and they expect food trucks to serve food that is less expensive than what they can get in a restaurant. In Maine, he said, people recognize quality seafood when they see it, even if it’s coming from a truck.

Price fluctuations matter little to people like Woody Woodbury of Freeport, who says the price of a lobster roll has “zero effect” on whether or not he’ll eat one – even if it reaches $20 or more.

“If I have a hankering for one, I have a hankering for one,” he said. “Twenty dollars isn’t going to scare me.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad