Thanks to the warmer waters of climate change, a boom in lobster sex, and a glut of lobster, you can, if you live in Maine, fetch lobster for about $2.20 a pound. That means that the delicious lobster roll you're ordering on Seamless right now costs you around seven to 12 times the amount that lobster meat is actually going for.
So let's dig in to the lobster economy as if were a meaty claw full of succulent...wait, where were we?
Lobster Meat Is Cheap
The amount of actual lobster meat a lobster roll contains is about 3.5 ounces, according to an expert whom New York magazine consulted—that's about the amount meat you'd scoop and dig out of one one-pound lobster. The lobster "off the boat is selling for as low as $2.20 a pound," reports The New Yorker's James Surowiecki. So, do the math: $2.20 should easily cover all the meat in a lobster roll.
To put that into perspective, grass-fed beef from Fresh Direct goes for about $9 a pound, organic chicken is about $2.99 per pound, and boneless pork chops are around $4.99 per pound. Lobster meat fresh off the boat is cheaper than all of those — yet sells on Fresh Direct for $9.99 a pound, to give you an idea on the markup.
Lobster Rolls Are Expensive
Lobster rolls are delicious. I would throw my coworkers down several flights of stairs for one right now. But they're also expensive. Keep in mind, your average lobster roll price may vary. That having been said, we looked at some of the best-reviewed lobster roll "shacks" in the city. The lowest mark up comes in around 7 times the amount you'd pay off the boat (it'd be like paying $123,522 for a standard $18,000 Honda Civic). So here's the number of lobsters you could buy fresh off the boat, somewhere on the coast of Maine or the Cape Cod shore, compared to the amount that you're paying for that delicious Manhattan lobster roll:
Luke's Lobster $15.
Mary's Fish Camp $30.
Mermaid Inn $28.
Red Hook Lobster Pound $16.
Ed's Lobster Bar $27.
BLT Fish Shack $26.
I'm not even going to debate which one is the best—an argument that has the potential to cause violence. True, in good part, what you're paying for in these markups is the preparation, the surgical removal of lobster meat from lobster shell, a smidgen of mayo (or butter), a hot dog bun, and ambiance (if you eat in). Slate's Matt Yglesias points out, you're paying for transportation costs too. What it boils down to is you're overpaying, but the thing is...
Nothing Can Be Done
This was first explored, famously, by David Foster Wallace in his famous essay "Consider the Lobster," where he looked how lobster became a luxury food. And, as Surowiecki explains, low prices create suspicion, making potential customers think cheaper lobster is inferior (rather than being reflective of the actual market price). Moreover, high lobster prices also make selling medium-priced fish easier—a lower price would make those medium-priced entrees seem more expensive. "Setting lobster prices is not, in other words, a matter of just adding a markup to costs. It’s a surprisingly complex attempt to both respond to and shape what customers want," Surowiecki writes.
The Cheap Lobster Might Not Last, Anyway
The reason we have such cheap lobster is that waters are warmer. Warmer waters make more lobsters randy, drives them to molt and grow rapidly, and thus creates bigger harvests. But getting too warm can make them sick. "While warmer waters off the coast of Maine in recent years have probably aided the boom in lobster numbers, putting us right in the temperature sweet spot for this species, we’re getting closer and closer to that point where the temperature is just too stressful for them, their immune system is compromised and it’s all over," Bob Steneck, Professor of Marine Sciences told Think Progress. Experts say one freak year is all that it would take for the lobster orgy to end and ruin the lives of the good people who make your lobster roll happen. Then the lobster roll would become even more expensive, and you may just have to resort to clam strips.
Lobster photo by Edward Westmacott via Shutterstock.