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Exploring the High Price Tag of a NYC Lobster Roll and Fries

New York City has not always been a lobster roll town.

Fifteen years ago, Ms. Povich set out 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 outdoor space cordoned off for the family to indulge in shellfish.

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

They built a humming business and a reputation for being a great place to hang out on a summer Saturday afternoon.

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

These days, the business feels precarious. The restaurant is open year-round, but lobster rolls are really a hot weather treat, and fewer people came to Red Hook this summer, a particularly rainy and humid season. Sales are down for the first time in years, Ms. Povich said, and winter is on its way.

Ms. Povich has deep relationships with her lobster suppliers and said she is getting the best deal she can for the best quality meat. She is not willing to downgrade her very good frozen fries to just-average ones. But she already made some concessions to an economy that has battered restaurants across the city.

She stopped offering free coleslaw with a lobster roll, after she watched too many customers chuck it out with their trash.

She swapped out china plates for aluminum pie plates, which are better suited to outdoor dining and require less water and less labor to clean.

And the restaurant’s longstanding $25 Wednesday night lobster dinner, beloved by locals and loyal customers, is put on hold when the cost of lobster surges.

But some costs can’t be avoided.

Occasionally, a lobster claw falls on the floor and has to be thrown out, which is especially painful when every ounce is $2.50.

It costs almost $400 a month to keep the website running and another $450 to list the restaurant on the Resy reservations service. Ms. Povich has accepted that she will keep losing 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, she said, so the restaurant had to absorb those couple of hundred dollars. But staying on the delivery apps could bring in new customers, so it feels too risky to quit.

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

And complaints about the prices have started rolling in. Customers almost never say anything in person. But on Yelp, or Google Reviews, the gripes she sees are consistent: It’s not enough lobster to justify the price. Ms. Povich can’t see a way to lower the cost without cutting corners.

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

Still, Ms. Povich said, “I’d rather people complain about my prices than complain about my food.”

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