Do you feel like you’re shelling out more for lobster rolls or clams lately? It’s true: A maelstrom of factors, including rain closures and red tide, have caused seafood prices to spike.
Renewed Chinese demand for lobster is also affecting cost, says Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
“In Massachusetts, we have 750 commercial lobstermen harboring around 19 million pounds of lobsters per year. If you eliminate five pounds, that drives up the price for the other 14,” she says.
So restaurateurs are getting creative to keep prices down, especially when it comes to pricy lobster and clams. At the Summer Shack in the Back Bay and Cambridge, operations director Vinny Lombardi sells lobster dumplings, which use less meat.
“I think lobster rolls will be $40 to $45 until next year,” he says. “We’re also trying to shrink our plates a little — we want to keep costs as low as we can,” he says.
At Dairy Joy in Weston, manager Mike Nelson used to pay about $700 per case of lobster; now he pays about $1,000.
“It’s gone up 30 percent over the last six weeks,” he says. He’s also seeing an increase in clam prices — so much so that he pulled clams from his menu for a bit.
“The price is unbelievable,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. They used to be $160 to $180 per gallon; last week, it was $280 a gallon.”
As such, he would likely sell a small clam plate for $32 instead of $26.
Customers have been understanding about increased lobster prices, Nelson says. They grasp that it’s typically a luxury item. But he sometimes has to defend high clam prices to puzzled guests. He explains that red tide, which is caused by an overgrowth of toxic algae that could poison or kill marine life, causes the shortages.
“We haven’t had much backlash with lobster rolls as much as with clams. Between red tide, and supply and demand, and bays being closed randomly because of the rain? Seafood is the second-most regulated industry. As soon as we get six inches of rain, they close — and those clams dig themselves deep. That’s what we tell people: ‘Red tide comes with the rain,’” he says.
Customers are lining up for shrimp, scallops, and whitefish dishes instead. He’s selling lots of haddock tacos and crab cakes, too.
“Those sales are through the roof,” he says.
At Mooncusser in the Back Bay, chef Carl Dooley is playing fast and loose with unusual fish dishes. Lobster isn’t currently on the menu. Instead, he’s serving lots of local black bass. To keep costs in check, he uses the whole fish — a fillet as an entrée, bones for a sauce, and other pieces for a ceviche. He even fries the skin to make “skin crackers,” he says.
And if you’ve never tried cusk, now’s your big chance: Dooley is introducing guests to the fish, which he procures locally from Red’s Best.
“It’s like if hake and monkfish had a baby,” he explains. He braises it, sears it on one side, and finishes it with corn sauce. It looks pretty.
“But everyone always asks: ‘What’s cusk?’” he says with a laugh.
At Row 34, which has several locations in the city and beyond, chef Jeremy Sewall is selling lots of monkfish skewers and bass head tacos. His signature lobster roll is still on the menu, but he does field questions about prices.
“I did get an e-mail from someone asking, ‘Why was my lobster roll $34 and this week it’s $36?’” he says. “We are in the high 30s, which is where we want to be. Paying 40-something for a lobster roll? That’s not insane. It might feel insane from a consumer standpoint, but when you’re harvesting wild shellfish, cooking it and cleaning it, it’s expensive and not easy to do,” he says.
Plus, he says, demand is incredibly high as diners venture out to restaurants again.
“People are back going out into the world. Demand is higher than ever,” he says.
Restaurants are also competing for supply with supermarkets, as pandemic-weary shoppers feel more comfortable buying lobster and making it in their own kitchens.
“Restaurants made up 80 percent of all seafood consumed in restaurants pre-pandemic and 90 percent of all lobster consumed in restaurants. Not many people would comfortably eat cooked seafood at home on a regular basis. They’d grill a steak or chicken. But now people are cooking at home more,” Sewall says.
Meanwhile, at Woodman’s of Essex, lobster and whole belly clams are selling briskly, even as prices fluctuate. North Shore travelers still want their fix.
“This is truly a tourist destination. For tourists, it’s once a year — so they will order no matter what,” says co-owner Maureen Woodman. “I might get one person per week who questions the price.”
As for yanking anything from the menu? No chance.
“Our job is to sell whole belly clams,” she says.