Be prepared to pay more for your lobster fix

Prices of the crustacean are up because of a shortage of supply and increased demand from China

Bad news for lobster fans: The price of the crustacean has increased by up to 40 per cent, thanks to tightening supplies.

Industry watchers say bad weather conditions in Boston - where many American lobsters are from - and increased demand from affluent diners in China have driven the prices up.

The result is that dishes incorporating lobster meat have become more expensive. The effect is particularly felt on the everpopular item: the lobster roll.

Of the eight restaurants which offer lobster rolls that SundayLife! spoke to, three have upped their prices. This week, lobstercentric restaurant Pince & Pints in Duxton Road increased the price of its lobster rolls, each comprising 150g of lobster meat, from $48 to $58.

Seafood restaurant The Naked Finn in Gillman Barracks raised prices of its lobster rolls with 90g of lobster meat from $29 to $35 earlier this month.

Seafood boils restaurant The Cajun Kings in Jalan Riang increased prices of its lobster rolls, which comprises 115g to 120g of meat, from $30 to $34 in late March.

At The Naked Finn, owner Tan Ken Loon, 40, is even considering taking the item off the menu if the price of lobster goes past the $50 a kg mark.

Currently, he is paying "a high $40 figure", a result of increasing prices since February.

He says: "We price our rolls at a very thin profit margin. With the recent increase, we cannot cushion the extra costs."

But still, it seems like diners are willing to shell out for the seafood bun. Demand for The Naked Finn's lobster rolls, which is served only during lunch, has not dampened over the past three weeks since the price hike.

Some restaurants, however, do not want to take the risk and stopped ordering lobster altogether.

Mr Frederick Yap, 28, owner of Pince & Pints, who also distributes up to 250kg of live Boston lobsters a week to more than 20 restaurants here, noticed that about five restaurants stopped ordering over the past three months as the selling price rose from $36 to $45 a kg.

Most restaurants here typically use American lobsters, also known as Homarus americanus. They are imported from Boston and Maine in the United States and from Canada.

One of the reasons for the price hike is poor weather. Pince & Pints' Mr Yap says that the recent harsh winter impeded the fishing of lobsters.

He adds: "There have also been delays in shipping lobsters out of the US as airports were closed and it is difficult for cargo trucks to travel on frozen roads."

Figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority show that the volume of imports of live Homarus lobsters from the US dropped by more than 20 per cent, from 13,000kg in February this year to 10,000kg last month.

Correspondingly, prices have gone up. A spokesman for Seafood Industries Association Singapore says that the prices of Boston lobsters by US suppliers have increased rapidly from $15 a kg in May to $21 a kg in June last year.

Another reason for increased prices is that the Chinese are buying a lot more lobsters. According to US government statistics, American exports of live or processed lobster to China leapt from US$2.1 million in 2009 to US$90.5 million (S$121 million) last year.

The Naked Finn's Mr Tan says: "The Chinese will pay top dollar for such luxury items. Their demand will drive up the prices of lobsters, as they have already done in markets for wines and black cod fish."

Despite the higher cost price, some restaurants that serve lobster rolls have decided to keep prices the same for now.

These include Dancing Crab in Turf Club Road, The Market Grill in Telok Ayer Street and Luke's Oyster Bar & Chop House in Gemmill Lane and Orchard Road.

Luke's owner Travis Masiero, 36, who says the restaurant's lobster roll contains 150g of meat and costs $45, notes: "Lobster prices have always been volatile. So I set my prices to accommodate 10 to 15 per cent cost changes."

Mr Norman Hartono, 27, general manager of the Dancing Crab, is adopting a wait-and-see approach. He says: "Suppliers have told us that they do not anticipate a further price hike, as weather conditions may improve in the coming months."

Its lobster roll has 110g of meat and costs $29.50.

Outside of the restaurants serving lobster rolls, other kinds of seafood restaurants have also raised their prices.

One of them is The Boiler Louisiana Seafood and Beer in Tai Seng. It has tweaked its promotional price for a 600g piece of Boston lobster from $49 to $55 earlier this month. Its usual price is $75.

Its owner, Mr Malcolm Hong, 35, says: "Prices of my lobster supply have gone up by up to 40 per cent. I am considering introducing new varieties of seafood, such as Golden crabs and surf clams that are now cheaper when compared with the increased price of lobsters."

Chinese restaurants have also been hit by the shortage in supply. Cove99 Live Seafood Restaurant in Peck Seah Street has raised the promotional prices of its Boston lobsters from $68 to $88 a kg last month. The usual price is $98 a kg.

Owner Roy Yap, 39, says: "We experienced difficulty in getting sufficient supplies on some days."

Still, most diners do not mind the extra costs as they see lobster dishes as occasional treats. Freelance writer Denise Cheong, 25, who has tried the lobster rolls at The Naked Finn and Pince & Pints, plans to eat these rolls only once every three months.

She says: "Since it is a rare treat, I don't mind paying more to indulge."

Public relations executive Cedric Tang, 30, plans to try the rolls at Pince & Pints despite its price hike. He says: "My friends told me they are good. I'd better try the rolls before their prices increase again."

kengohsz@sph.com.sg