With summer approaching, lobsters are on a roll

Few dishes are simpler than lobster meat on a roll, but over the past few years this quick-service meal has been growing steadily in popularity and, in some restaurants, becoming the main attraction. From the Vegas strip to New York and the nation’s capital, restaurateurs making a killing off lobster rolls and lobster rolls alone.

Luke’s Lobster is a prime example. Cape Elizabeth, Maine, native Luke Holden missed the availability of high quality, affordable lobster rolls after moving to New York City in 2007. So he set aside his career in investment banking to open a small, seafood quick-service lobster shack. Thanks to his father’s career in the Maine lobster business he had plentiful relationships with Maine fishermen, and in combining forces with his family members he created a trap-to-table venue.

“It was an opportunity to do something I was very passionate about — working within the Maine lobster industry and partnering with my family on a project,” Holden said. By May 2010 he’d opened his second restaurant and five years later there are nine locations in New York City, three in Washington, D.C., one in Philadelphia and three more opening this year in Chicago, Hoboken, N.J., and Boston. The location in Chicago opens next Monday, in the city’s Loop, or central business district.

In December 2012 Holden and his brother Bryan opened Cape Seafood, a processing plant in Saco, Maine, so that the company could control sourcing and traceability and take ownership of the trap-to-table experience. Holden and his partner Ben Conniff interact with fishermen daily, buying lobster directly from them and cooking them before shipping them to New York along with the buns for the rolls (flash-frozen product is used when catches are low). The lobster rolls, which sell for USD 15 each, are the most popular items on a menu that includes crab and shrimp rolls.

“At our busiest locations we can sell 500 or more in a single day in summer,” he said, adding the company uses more than a quarter-million pounds of lobster claw and knuckle meat a year. Sales in 2015 will exceed USD 20 million.

“The fact that we’re a trap-to-table restaurant group is very valuable to our customers,” he said. “Being a second-generation fishing family, in the seafood business for the last 50 years, we offer authenticity. Many customers care about where their food comes from and that we’re only sourcing from sustainable resources. But all our guests care about quality. In this vertically integrated structure we’re able to build the highest quality industry, second to none.”

The same year Holden opened his first lobster shack, Susan Povich and Ralph Gorham were doing the same thing at the Red Hook Lobster Pound, also with success.

“Lobster rolls are like friggin’ Starbucks or cupcakes,” Povich said. “We’re known for our lobster rolls and because my lobster rolls are really good; we go through thousands each week. I became very, very successful by accident overnight.”

Red Hook’s lobsters also hail from Maine and the company now has a full-service restaurant, two counter-style kiosks, food trucks in Washington, DC and New York and pop-up stores at markets. At the highest volume location, Smorgasbord in the Brooklyn Flea, Red Pound sells up to 1,000 lobster rolls in a single day, at a price of USD 16 (EUR 14.24) each. “There’s a huge pressure on pricing for lobster meat and when we started the business we were selling our rolls for USD 13,” she said. “If I could increase the price to USD 17, I would, but I’m going to hope that lobster prices come down.”

A relative newcomer to the business, Danny Boockvar, CEO of NY Cruise Lines, the parent company of the North River Lobster Company, opened a three-floor floating lobster shack at New York’s Pier 81 last summer and has also experienced huge success with his lobster rolls, which constituted more than 51 percent of entrée revenue in 2014.

“We sold more than 26,000 of them last year, and they’re by far the favorite food item,” he said. The vessel, which can host up to 450 guests at a time, is increasing the price of its lobster rolls this year from USD 18 to 21.95. “Market conditions forced us to increase the price,” he said. “We wanted to be competitively priced in the marketplace for what we deliver: a great place to have a lobster roll, outside with a beer. The whole point of North River was to celebrate the food while celebrating the water at the same time.”

Boockvar said the majority of his lobsters are sourced from Maine, but that sustainable harvesting has not been part of the company’s strategy. Last year North River Lobster Company welcomed 87,000 guests on board. This season, with capacity expanded by 30 percent, more than 100,000 guests are expected. “Last year our lobster rolls were a smashing success,” he said. “We’re confident that this year it will be the same.” 


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