Summertime diners demand Maine lobster

First published in the MLA Newsletter, May, 2012

Everyone knows that there is nothing like the taste of fresh Maine lobster. Maine restaurants depend on the allure of Homarus americanus to balance their bottom line each season. When tourists arrive each summer, they flock to the state’s thousands of take-out stands, dockside restaurants, casual eateries and  fine dining establishments. And those businesses are well prepared to accommodate that demand by featuring lobsters prominently on their menus.

Maine’s coastal economy gets a boost each summer as visitors flock to seafood restaurants to consume tasty lobsters, such as these from Cape Porpoise Lobster Company. Photo by David Heald.

“Lobster represents a very significant ‘Center of the Plate’ seafood for almost all of the restaurants in Maine,” said Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association. “My sense is that lobster in all forms may represent as much as 20 percent of restaurant sales in season. Of course, many restaurants that specialize in lobster would enjoy a much higher use percentage.”

Steve Kingston is the owner of Clam Shack Seafoods, a seasonal take-out stand in Kennebunkport known to serve approximately 250,000 customers each season.  “Thirty-five percent of our sales are lobster, with 25 percent of that number being lobster rolls,” Kingston said.

Just a few miles up the coast in Cape Porpoise, Allen Daggett owns a small dockside restaurant called Cape Pier Chowder House. “My estimate for the number of customers served for the year (the restaurant is open seven months each year) would be about 72,000 people,” Daggett said. “Revenue from lobster, counting steamed lobster, lobster rolls, lobster stew, fried lobster and lobster salad, is about $250,000 dollars.”

Numbers and figures are understandably higher for larger restaurants in a chain such as Weathervane Seafood. “At our thirteen year-round and three seasonal locations, we serve over one million customers each year. As a seafood restaurant chain, lobster is a huge source of revenue for us. It accounts for roughly 20 to 25 percent of our sales annually,” said Josh Sharp, head of purchasing and distribution of food and beverage for Weathervane Seafood Inc..

William Tower Jr. has owned and operated Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit  for 51 years. “Looking over our figures from last summer, I found that we used between 7,000 and 11,000 pounds of live lobsters each week during our busy season, and that doesn’t include the pre-picked lobster meat,” Tower said. He estimated that half of all meals served during the summer months include lobster.

Lobster is what’s for dinner for many of Maine’s summer visitors. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

Lobstermen often remark that the price for lobster on a Maine restaurant’s menu bears little relation to the price paid to the lobstermen who harvested the lobster. Grotton explained setting the price for a lobster served in Maine restaurants has to do with fluctuating demand. “For the lobster industry, volume sales are important,” he noted. “Volume is also important to the restaurant. Maintaining that balance between increasing sales and reasonable food cost is a constant challenge. The savvy restaurateur understands that the cost for seafood specialties, including lobster, is higher than for other menu items and they must account for that higher cost to profit from that item,” Grotton said.

Sharp agreed. “Customers that love lobster might not stop eating it all together [if the price goes up], but they will cut down on the frequency of their visits. That is something we want to avoid,” he said. Weathervane offers specials such as “Wicked Cheap Twins” on Thursday nights and coupons for lobster rolls and other all-you-can-eat seafood specials to keep customers coming back.

Whether they get it in a restaurant or buy it from a local fish market, seasonal visitors continue to seek out the tasty lobster. “Tourists feel like they’re already getting a deal buying in Maine at a fish market rather than from their grocery store at home, and they’re definitely willing to pay for fresh Maine lobster in Maine,” Kingston said.

Which brings to mind another question:  Since millions of pounds of lobster are consumed at Maine restaurants each summer, a huge volume of lobster shells are left behind. What is done with all the discarded exoskeletons? “Sometimes we sell the bodies to be used towards making bisques or soups. Other times they might go towards compost and fertilizer. It all depends on the need for it,” Sharp said. Daggett said 50 percent of his leftover shells are picked up by gardeners who like to compost.

Despite the dip in the economy, restaurant owners anticipate another strong summer of lobster sales. No matter how Maine lobster is prepared, people want ‘fresh from the sea’ Maine lobster when they are visiting the state.