August 10, 2012

Lobster prices hit record lows, but restaurants still charge top dollar

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – Tourists who come to Maine aren't about to head home without having eaten lobster -- and they're not going to be deterred by high prices.

Today's poll: Lobster prices

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Nikki Salvia orders a crab roll Thursday at Day’s Take Out on Route 1 in Yarmouth, where the market price for a lobster roll was $12.95. Salvia is visiting Maine from New York.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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A sign on Commercial Street in Portland advertises the price per pound for lobster Thursday at Benny’s Lobster.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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By the time that bright-red lobster lands in front of a customer in a Maine restaurant, those low dock prices of $2 or $2.50 a pound are more like a distant murmur than the issue that's causing all that shouting by lobstermen up in Canada, who are worried that their livelihood is threatened by the cheap Maine lobster flowing to processing plants north of the border.

A case in point is the Lobster Shack at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, where diners can savor their seafood on picnic tables overlooking waves crashing on, yes, the rocky coast of Maine. On Thursday, the lobster rolls and lobster dinner were going for "market price" on the big menu board posted where diners line up to place their orders.

A smaller board just inside the door offered the detail that the market price was $14.99 for a lobster roll and $18.99 for the dinner.

Cynthia Geary, a Portland native who now lives in California, had no idea how much she had just paid for two lobster rolls -- one for her and another for son Collin -- and three sodas, until she dug out the receipt showing $37. Husband Kevin Geary, also a Portland native, hates seafood but was looking forward to eating later. He planned on having a real Maine Italian sandwich, which he says he can't find in California because the bread out west doesn't taste as good as it does in Maine.

Cynthia Geary confessed that she hadn't really paid attention to the lobster roll cost, because the trip to the Lobster Shack is a regular feature of the family's Maine vacations, and also because someone had been standing in front of the sign noting the prices when she went in to order.

"I thought it was kind of expensive," she said. "I feel taken advantage of. It says market price, and I thought market price was $2.99."

Nearby, military retiree Bill Thompson of Manchester also said he paid no attention to the price of his lobster roll -- his friends from Florida were paying.

"That's crazy," he said of the price they shelled out, "but it was good."

Carol Hart, who picked up the tab with her husband, Terrell Hart, said vacationers know pretty much everything is going to cost a lot, so they don't necessarily blink at a lobster roll for $14.99, even when a whole lobster can be had for $3 or $4 at a local lobster pound.

"When you're at a place like this," she said over the sound of a foghorn, "and you're on vacation, you just spend."

Katie Porch, who owns the Lobster Shack with her husband, Jeff, said customers need to realize that she's not getting her lobster right off the boat and has to go through a dealer, who adds a markup to the price. She also noted that her lobster rolls are filled with fresh meat, but she buys it cooked and picked by the dealers, which adds to the price.

Cooked lobster meat is going for about $24 a pound, she said, a price that other restaurant owners in the area confirmed.

A few customers have pointed out that lobster prices are near record lows, Porch said. "I keep hearing that, too," she said.

Porch declined to say what she's paying for lobster but noted that prices for most other seafood have shot up this year, and some products -- crabmeat, for instance -- are hard to find for any price.

Porch said she cut the price for the lobster meal from about $25 a month ago, when she could no longer get more expensive hard-shell lobsters.

Steve DiMillo, owner of DiMillo's Floating Restaurant on the Portland waterfront, echoed Porch's comments.

His restaurant serves hard-shells only for its in-the-shell lobster meals, he said, and they generally run $5 a pound and up at lobster dealers. He said he also makes his lobster rolls from meat that he buys from dealers. Even though most of that meat comes from soft-shell lobsters and should be getting less expensive, it's been stuck at about $24 a pound for months.

"The dealer's making a really good markup," DiMillo said. When asked about it, dealers "come up with explanations that really don't make any sense."

At the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, they even out price gyrations by dealing directly with lobsterman Jim Merryman, said Glen Sanokklis, resident manager of the inn.

The inn pays Merryman more than the market rate -- $3.50 to $4 a pound now -- at times when lobster is plentiful, but he also makes sure they have lobster at a discount in the winter, when the supply typically tightens and prices rise.

That allows the inn to set out trays of lobsters, along with other offerings, at the Sunday brunch, which costs $24.95, Sanokklis said. The lobsters are available at brunch pretty much all year, he said, and the meal usually sells out.

Out at the Lobster Shack, there was a clear difference between locals, who seemed put off by the price of lobster dishes, and the folks from away, who weren't at all fazed.

Ruth Ann Vandepitte of South Portland has been treating her niece and nephew to lobster every day of their visit here from Allen, Texas. But she clearly favored the dishes she was making at home, noting that she could make lobster rolls for all three of them, with some left over, from a pound of lobster meat that she bought this week for $25. This weekend she plans to cook up a bunch of soft-shells before Rusty and Sharon Slicker head back home.

"We'll just get a mess of lobster, and we'll pay a lot less," she said. Vandepitte plans to take advantage of the low prices while she can, noting "you can't expect to be paying $3.50 forever."

Randy Slicker said $14.99 for a lobster roll was way less than he would pay in Texas, if he could even find one.

Nearby, Philip Howell of Como, N.C., was about to dig into a lobster meal with his wife, Belinda. He seemed more concerned about how to crack the shell and get to the meat -- it was his first whole lobster -- than he was with the cost.

"It's a treat for us," he said. "This is the first time we've ever been to Maine, and everyone says you've got to eat lobster."

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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Today's poll: Lobster prices

Do you sympathize with lobstermen over the low prices they’re seeing?

Yes

No

View Results