Consider the $34 Lobster Roll

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WISCASSET, Maine — On the first weekend of June, the scene at Red’s Eats seemed much like summers past. The line of tourists waiting to order at this picturesque seafood shack ran down the block. The sun beat down and employees passed out umbrellas and water, the sort of nicety you provide when your restaurant makes “best of” lists and causes traffic jams in attracting people from across the country.

Red’s menu offered its usual fare of sea scallops, whole belly deep-fried clams and its most famous dish, a fresh lobster roll, “piled high.”

The only change was the price: This year, the lobster roll is $30.

“Are you kidding me?” said Bindu Gajria, who was vacationing from Philadelphia and hadn’t checked the menu before getting in line. “I was going to order one, but now I’m having second thoughts.”

There are roughly 4,500 licensed lobstermen in the state of Maine, and every fishing vessel is an independent operator. “The fishery and the supply chain are completely disconnected,” Ms. Tselikis said. “I cannot tell those boats to go fishing,” if a captain decides to take the day off.

And when it comes to processing, she added, “We don’t have a lot of automation in this industry because we’re dealing with an animal that has two large claws, eight legs, a tail and an exoskeleton. In order for that lobster to get out of the ocean and to a consumer is an incredible process. This isn’t a hot dog. It isn’t a hamburger.”

All of which has resulted in an epic mismatch between supply and demand so far this year. So epic, in fact, that Red’s opened in April with no lobster on its menu. That’s like Peter Luger opening with no steak.

But the lobstermen and women from whom Red’s buys were not having good harvests, even offshore. So it was either go without until live lobster was available or serve frozen meat — an option that Debbie Gagnon, an owner of Red’s, likened to “a stake in the heart.”

Wearing a red Red’s T-shirt and ball cap, Ms. Gagnon spoke to a reporter through the order window, where she was simultaneously scribbling on a pad and making announcements over a loudspeaker (“Welcome to Red’s. Get ready for the best lunch in Maine! … Last weekend we had Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon waiting in line …”).

“Frozen lobster is like wet cardboard,” she said. “And it’s not who we are. I would never, ever serve frozen lobster.”

Was there a gouging of tourists by some eateries? Or are varying prices an indication of individual restaurants’ approach to the roll?

The owners of McCloon’s, which include Mr. Douty, also own a wharf, where they furnish the lobstermen with bait and fuel and buy lobsters directly, making supply less of an issue. They stuff their $20 lobster roll with four ounces of meat.

Red’s serves a buttery, heaping roll that contains so much meat — about eight ounces — the bun is invisible. Decreasing the portion size would be another stake in the heart.

Ms. Gagnon hopes to lower the price as the supply increases. But many restaurants set the lobster roll price at the beginning of the season and maintain it. Mr. Kingston, who tends to operate this way, said determining the price for his 5½ ounce roll was “painful” this year.

“I worry about this stuff,” he said. “We’re on people’s bucket lists. They will tell me, ‘We got off the exit to come here. We understand you serve the Bushes.’ But there comes a point.”

How much is too much for a summer food tradition?

“I didn’t think we were there at $24.95, but I’ve been worried,” Mr. Kingston said. “I’m pretty sure we’re not selling as many as 2019.”

After standing for 40 minutes in the slow-moving line, the couple approached the window. They ordered two lobster rolls, scallops, French fries and two sodas. Total cost: “Ninety dollars even, dear,” Ms. Gagnon said.

Mr. Pulliam had already justified it: “I’m glad I didn’t bring the kids.”

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