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Restaurateurs grapple with lobster shortage

PORTLAND Maine Increased demand and an unseasonably cold spring have crushed Maine’s lobster supplies, driving up prices to what experts say are the highest levels in 15 years.

Kristen Millar, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, said prices vary from harbor to harbor, but have gone up by as much as 70 percent in recent weeks.

Chefs and restaurateurs have seen prices go up even more.

The cold, windy weather of recent months kept most lobstermen from checking their traps, and the few who did manage to get out found that lobsters had not taken the bait, according to Millar.

“When it gets really cold, [lobsters] go into sort of a hibernation state,” she explained. They won’t come to shore in search of food until the weather warms up.

During the winter, Maine kept a supply of lobsters in tidal pounds, as they always do, but Millar said the reserves were decimated by high demand.

“We put away about the average of the past five years, but by March we were [nearly] out of lobsters,” Millar said. “We just weren’t anticipating this high of a demand.”

Lobster sales generally spike in late February when Red Lobster’s annual Lobsterfest begins, she said, but this year demand was coming from a fragmented array of other quarters as well, mostly domestic.

Whatever the reason for the heightened demand, many chefs are responding to the spike in prices by taking lobster off their menus.

Cyril Renaud, chef of Fleur de Sel in New York City, who paid $9.99 a pound for lobsters just a few weeks ago, stopped buying them last weekend when the cost hit $20 a pound.

“There’s a point to which you can pass on the costs, but eventually it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Tom Hurley, chef-owner of Hurley’s and Coupage, which has one unit each in Portland and Seattle, says that by the time lobster reaches his restaurant, it’s $49 per pound.

“It’s ridiculous how high it is,” he said. “I used to use lobster all the time. Now we don’t even make lobster bisque or sauce Américaine anymore.

“I don’t know of anyone that’s selling lobster on the menu now other than the big fish houses,” he said.

Denverrestaurateur Josh Wolkon said his Fresh Maine Lobster Roll was a signature item at his restaurant Steubens until recently.

“We charge only $18 for a heaping lobster roll, which already makes our food cost on this item about 75 percent, but sometimes you honestly want to give back and can live with a loss-leader,” said Wolkon, a native of Boston.

But he took the lobster roll off the menu as prices continued to skyrocket. He said he asked disappointed guests how much they would be willing to pay for the roll. “Few would pay more than $24. So, we continue to wait out this shortage and price increase,” Wolkon said. 

Others are trying to ride it out. Ken Starr, director of operations of Metrotainment Cafes in Atlanta — parent to the three-unit Garrison’s chain, Cheyenne Grille and Sports Bar, Cowtippers, Einstein’s, Joe’s on Juniper, Joe’s on Sullivan, Hudson Grille and Metrotainment Bakery — said the company won’t be changing prices.

Paul Bauer, director of marketing and projects of the historic City Tavern in Philadelphia, says that for their lobster pie they use individual quick-frozen lobster tails, the price of which has yet to be affected.

Michael Lachowicz, chef-owner of Restaurant Michael in Winnetka, Ill., says he has adjusted by using shrimp shells for his bisque and Américaine sauces.

Millar from the Maine Lobster Promotion Council says lobster prices will go down when temperatures go up.

“The lobsters are waiting for weather, the lobstermen are waiting for weather to change. It’s a matter of getting out there and fishing and having lobsters,” she said, keeping her fingers crossed that they would meet demand for Mother’s Day.

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