Saturday, May 25

That’s why a New York lobster roll (with fries!) costs $32

New York City wasn’t always a lobster town.

Fifteen years ago, Ms. Povich decided to change that. She first learned to love lobster in the backyard of her grandparents’ house in Maine, which had a kosher kitchen but an enclosed outdoor space for the family to indulge in the shellfish.

She and her husband Ralph started out selling whole lobsters in a building they purchased in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Soon after, he drove seven hours to Maine a couple of times a week to bring back fresh lobster meat and split-top rolls, which the couple says are much better suited for a lobster roll than the side-split version, the only like then. available in New York.

They have built a lively business and a reputation for being a great place to spend a summer Saturday afternoon.

The pandemic has upended everything at the Red Hook Lobster Pound. Prices increased across the board, and by mid-2022, Ms. Povich felt she had no choice but to increase the price of her signature item, a lobster roll and fries.

These days, business seems precarious. The restaurant is open year-round, but the lobster rolls are truly a treat in hot weather, and this summer, a particularly rainy and humid season, fewer people have come to Red Hook. Sales are down for the first time in years, Ms. Povich said, and winter is upon us.

Ms. Povich has deep relationships with her lobster suppliers and said she is getting the best deal possible for the highest quality meat. She’s not willing to downgrade her excellent frozen fries to just average ones. But she has already made some concessions to an economy that has affected restaurants across the city.

It stopped offering free coleslaw with a lobster roll after seeing too many customers throw it away with the trash.

He replaced porcelain plates with aluminum plates, which are better suited to outdoor dining and require less water and less labor to clean.

And the longtime $25 Wednesday night lobster dinner, beloved by locals and loyal customers, is being discontinued as the cost of lobster rises.

But some costs cannot be avoided.

Every now and then, a lobster claw falls to the ground and has to be thrown away, which is especially painful when each ounce is worth $2.50.

It costs almost $400 a month to keep the website running and another $450 to list the restaurant on the Resy reservation service. Ms. Povich accepted that she will continue to lose money on Seamless, the food delivery service, where a lobster roll and fries costs $44.77—and the restaurant takes home $24.75.

Two customers recently used phony credit cards to place online orders, he said, so the restaurant had to absorb that couple hundred dollars. But staying on delivery apps could attract new customers, so it seems too risky to abandon.

Then there’s the near-constant cycle of repairs and maintenance, the 3% credit card fees that add up to about $73,000 a year, and even the liability policy under which a customer with a wobbly molar who chips a tooth on a lobster roll gets $5,000 in dental work covered by the restaurant, no questions asked.

And the complaints about prices are starting to arrive. Customers almost never say anything in person. But on Yelp, or on Google Reviews, the complaints he sees are consistent: There’s not enough lobster to justify the price. Ms. Povich can’t see a way to lower costs without cutting corners.

He just wishes New Yorkers struggling with rent, heating bills and groceries would understand that they’re dealing with the same problems, in the same unaffordable city.

However, Ms. Povich said, “I would rather have people complain about my prices than my food.”

Produced by Eden Weingart, Eva Edelheit and Dagny Salas. Development of Gabriele Gianordoli AND Aliza Aufrichtig.