Make us your home page

Glut of lobsters yields big promotions at area restaurants

So a guy takes a girl to dinner for their first date. She orders lobster, market price — code for the most expensive thing on the menu. ¶ She never hears from him again. ¶ But the crustacean's days as a romance killer may be over. The lowest prices in decades have prompted restaurants across Tampa Bay to offer live Maine lobster at a deep discount. ¶ Now, lobster has a new role: business booster. ¶ "It's been a savior for us through the summertime," said Steve Fennell, general manager of Billy's Stone Crab & Lobster. "It brings people in. Everyone loves lobster." ¶ The Tierra Verde restaurant started selling 1 ½-pound lobsters for $15.95 a few months ago and got such a strong response, it has kept the promotion going. Fennell sees lobsters as a good alternative to stone crabs, which are now in season but are costly and in short supply. On average, the restaurant goes through about 400 lobsters a week.

Once a luxury dish reserved for special occasions, lobster is making its way to more and more plates. Even grocery stores are promoting it to at-home cooks as an affordable meal. Last week, Publix advertised small lobster tails for $4.99 each.

Diners can credit the deals to a glut of lobsters from Maine, the top producer, along with the Atlantic coastal areas of Canada. Last year, Maine's catch rose to a record 126 million pounds, double the amount a decade earlier and six times the average of the 1980s. Lobstermen accustomed to making $4 per pound have earned less than $2, creating a significant hardship for a region dependent on fishing.

Jeff Hazell, owner of Bar Harbor Seafood in Orlando, the area's largest supplier of lobsters, said he's selling 40,000 to 45,000 pounds of live Maine lobster a week, double that of two years ago. Interest has soared as prices have dropped. Restaurants that never considered the crawly crustacean now offer it as a featured special.

"We preach to restaurants, 'Put lobsters on the menu. Give them away to get people through the door. They'll order drinks and appetizers,' " he said.

This time of year is particularly good for soft shells from Maine — lobsters that molted their shell during the warmer months and are growing into a larger hard shell. Some gourmands consider soft shells sweeter, but they have less meat and thus are less expensive per pound.

Prices start to creep upward in November as trapping stops in Maine and shifts to Canada's more expensive hard shells, said Katie Sosa, co-owner of Sammy's Seafood in St. Petersburg. During the winter, prices peak when fishing stops altogether and supplies are limited to whatever companies have stored in tanks.

"This is the cheapest time of year for (soft) shell lobster, but we're just on the cusp of them getting more expensive," she said.

Companies deliver lobsters live to restaurants in seaweed-packed crates stored in coolers. (Lobster tails are processed up North and arrive frozen.)

CopperFish restaurant in Tampa gets daily deliveries of 1- and 2-pound live lobsters, served steamed or grilled. The low prices have made lobster even more popular, said chef Ted Dorsey. A customer who might wince at a $45 lobster dish is much more apt to try it when it costs $22 or $34, depending on the size.

"We want it to be accessible for people," he said.

Dorsey compares lobster to champagne. It's special and celebratory, with a touch of exclusivity. Each butter-soaked bite makes you happy.

Robert Nichol and Terri Huffman of Brandon head to James Joyce Irish Pub in Ybor City three to four times a month for its $9.99 lobster special on Monday nights. They like the casual bar atmosphere for digging into a delicacy most associated with fine dining. Live lobster isn't something they would attempt to cook at home.

The pub started the promotion last year as a way to gin up business on a normally slow day. Some nights were so busy the kitchen sold out of lobster before closing time.

Chef Jose Santiago said the pub makes about $1 per lobster — sometimes less — but makes up for it in beer sales and side dishes. During the summer he added the special on Tuesday and Wednesday nights but discontinued it a few weeks ago when prices inched up.

"A lot of people think that for that price, it must be frozen lobster, but it's not," he said.

Just ask his staff. At least once, a rogue lobster has escaped its crate and scurried around the kitchen.

Even national chains are getting deep into lobster. Earlier this month, Tampa-based Bonefish Grill, with 189 restaurants in 32 states, started Tuesday Tales of Lobster, a lobster tail dinner with choice of salad and side for $12.90 or lobster roll sliders with fries for $7.90.

Harold Seltzer's Steakhouse introduced steamed Maine lobster in September as an daily off-the-menu item. The 1 1/4-pound lobster sells for $15.99 and includes a cup of New England "chowda."

The response was so positive, customers started calling ahead to make sure the restaurant still had lobsters in stock, said Harold Seltzer, owner of the two restaurants in St. Petersburg and Port Richey.

"Lobster is a really good draw for us," he said. "It's very, very popular. People compliment us on it all the time."

The restaurant inspects every lobster when they arrive and "if they aren't alive and kicking, we send them back." Even cheap lobster won't sell if it's not fresh.

Susan Thurston can be reached at and (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

Glut of lobsters yields big promotions at area restaurants 10/25/13 [Last modified: Monday, October 28, 2013 8:29am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for Sept. 24


    Zac Brown Band: The country, folk and Southern rockers embark on the "Welcome Home" tour in support of the album. 7 p.m., MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre at the Florida State Fairgrounds, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $27.50-$77.50. (813) 740-2446.

    Handout photo of the Zac Brown Band, performing at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on 9/24/17. Credit: Shore Fire Media
  2. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for Sept. 23


    Smithsonian Museum Day Live: Museums across the nation partner with the Smithsonian to offer free admission for one day. Among them are Florida Holocaust Museum, Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs.Cracker Country in Tampa, Ringling Museum of Art. Note: Dalí Museum is free for Pinellas County …

    The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg is among the museums participating in the Smithsonian's Museum Day Live, offering free admission. (LANCE ROTHSTEIN   |  Special to the Times)
  3. Tampa Repertory's 'Flying' soars in some places, sputters in others


    TAMPA — Tampa Repertory Theatre has always insisted on putting on plays that mean something. Several shows over the last couple of years have zeroed in on the social and cultural baggage that comes with being female (The Children's Hour, Silent Sky and Grounded come to mind). None of those …

    The Southeastern premiere of Flying, Sheila Cowley's play at Tampa Repertory Theatre about veterans of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots, includes (from left) Holly Marie Weber, Rosemary Orlando, and Becca McCoy. Photo by Megan Lamasney.
  4. After 22 years, it's last call for beloved Ybor venue New World Brewery

    Music & Concerts

    YBOR CITY — Steve Bird spreads his tools across a patio table. He has awnings to unbolt and paraphernalia to unpry, from the busted Bop City neon by the stage to the Simpsons "El Duffo o Muerte" mural in the courtyard. He'll uproot a fountain and dismantle a roof and attempt to keep his bar intact. The …

    Various decor and memorabilia fill the walls and shelves at New World Brewery in Ybor City.
Long time music venue and hangout New World Brewery in Ybor City will be closing it's doors and moving locations. Patrons enjoy one of the last events before New World Brewery changes its location to Busch Blvd in Tampa.  [Photo Luis Santana | Times]