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No crabs, no scallops: Seafood is vanishing from menus in U.S.

UPDATED: Wed., July 28, 2021

The classic lobster roll, the star of the menu at the High Tide Lobster Bar, is displayed in 2019. Chef Chad White said he will offer the "ultimate roll" starting on Sunday that is a third crab, shrimp and lobster, to offset the higher costs of lobster.   (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
The classic lobster roll, the star of the menu at the High Tide Lobster Bar, is displayed in 2019. Chef Chad White said he will offer the "ultimate roll" starting on Sunday that is a third crab, shrimp and lobster, to offset the higher costs of lobster.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
By From staff and wire reports

At the Clam, there are no scallops.

Prices went “crazy,” says Mike Price, who co-owns the Greenwich Village restaurant, and so he yanked them off the menu. Over in Napa Valley, Phil Tessier, the executive chef at a popular spot called PRESS, did the same.

In Spokane, chef Chad White said he will soon offer the “ultimate roll” at the High Tide Lobster Bar that will only be a third lobster.

Because the price of lobster has gone up so much, White said he’s adding the new roll on Sunday, which will be a third crab, shrimp and lobster to offset the higher costs.

“That helps us maintain the prices and profit margin we need to remain successful and remain in business,” he said. “And, it keeps us from raising the price of the lobster roll itself.”

White said he used to buy a case of lobster for $198. Now he’s paying $388.

“Lobster is 98% of our sales even though we have shrimp and crab on the menu,” he said. “It’s such a high cost, it’s really difficult to be successful.”

And the higher prices aren’t just seafood, said White, who also operates TT’s Old Iron Brewery and BBQ and Zona Blanca Ceviche Bar.

“Our beef right now is just crazy,” said White, who has been forced to raise the prices of a full rack of ribs from $28 to $40. “It’s the same thing for brisket. We are running a 60% food cost in brisket. It’s really hard to operate.”

Just as restaurants are getting back on their feet after the coronavirus pandemic-forced shutdowns, the prices of food stocks have skyrocketed.

“We are only cooking six racks of ribs a day. Typically, we cooked 60 racks,” White said. “People are paying for it, but we feel bad. At the end of the day, we are not making money off anyone.”

In Atlanta, at the tapas joint the Iberian Pig, chef Josue Pena didn’t stop at scallops. The Alaskan halibut and blue crab are gone, too.

That last one was a killer, Pena says. Crab croquettes had become a signature dish.

“People were like ‘what’s up?’” But, he says, with wholesale costs soaring like they are, “the price we had to charge to be profitable was almost insulting.”

For restaurants across the U.S., the reopening from the COVID-19 lockdown has been anything but easy.

They’ve struggled to hire back enough waiters and chefs, often being forced to dangle double-digit pay hikes, and have been rocked by cost increases and shortages on all kinds of items – from condiment packets to takeout packaging and chicken wings.

So this jump in seafood prices, part of the broader inflationary surge working its way through the U.S. economy, is only further squeezing restaurateurs just when they were supposed to be raking in cash as they recover from all those months lost to the pandemic.

Seafood prices rose about 11% in the 12 months through early July from the previous period, according to NielsenIQ.

Stretch out the time horizon a little, Pena says, and the increases on certain hard-to-find products are much starker yet. A pound of halibut, he says, goes for $28 from the local seafood distributor he buys from in Atlanta.

Before the pandemic, it was $16 at most. And blue crab has gone from $18 a pound to $44.

But at least he can find crab. In Orlando, Brennan Heretick, co-owner of High Tide Harry’s, had to stop selling crab fingers because wholesalers in the region stopped offering them.

Just like in dozens of other overwhelmed industries in the booming economy, there are any number of factors causing the shortages and price spikes: The ports are congested; there aren’t enough fishermen; there aren’t enough truck drivers; and demand for seafood at restaurants is soaring.

“Distributors used to hustle and bustle to get your business,” says Jay Herrington, who owns Fish On Fire, a restaurant that’s a 10-minute drive from Heretick’s place.

Now, “you don’t get a delivery, or it’s a late delivery. Sometimes we have to go and pick it up.” That’s something he’d never seen before.

Herrington recently raised entree prices, which range from $10 to $20, by as much as $3 to offset the higher costs. “There’s just no stopping it,” he says.

Herrington’s headache is part of the broader backlog at U.S. ports that has sparked complaints for consumers and companies across the U.S. economy and is a major driver of the higher prices, according to Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications at the National Fisheries Institute.

Labor shortages have caused “serious delays,” he said in an email. He estimated that port-related costs are on track to be 20 times higher for the group’s member companies than last year.

White, the Spokane-based chef, said he’s had to pay his staff more and his employees are overworked because he can’t find extra help.

“We’ve had to minimize our hours at all of our locations because there are not enough people looking for jobs,” he said. “I’ve got a 19-year-old dishwasher who is working 30 hours a week. After gratuities, he’s making like $32 an hour and people still don’t want that job.”

A lack of fishermen is another fundamental problem.

When restaurants shut down during the pandemic, it meant that a key buyer evaporated, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That resulted in financial losses for many in the industry and forced them to find work in new areas.

Additionally, most fishermen in the U.S. are older than 40 and few young people are entering the field, according to Michael Priebel, manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon, Florida.

“A lot of people went into construction,” he said. “We see less and less people coming back every year because they are getting old and fishing is getting more expensive.”

The hurdles don’t stop there. Higher prices for cod, for example, are due to a shortage of shipping containers, according to Sysco, which is one of the world’s largest food distributors.

Lobster, meanwhile, has seen low inventory since COVID-19 restrictions in Canada last summer reduced boat crews going out to sea for prime-season catching, Sysco said in an email.

Supplies are currently being replenished as Maine’s season progresses, but prices remain high due to elevated demand.

Back at High Tide Harry’s in Orlando, Heretick says he’s now struggling to find crab legs as well as the claws he needs for his crab fingers dish.

The price on the crab meat he does find has more than doubled since January. Ditto for lobster.

Then he rattles off a bunch of other cost increases he’s been hit with: paper products, liquor, bamboo cocktail skewers, gloves.

He says those last two items are each up 200% or more. There are higher labor costs, too. Heretick recently bumped cooks up to $16 an hour and doled out increases to hosts and wait staff, too.

So far, he’s eaten much of the higher costs, opting to keep prices mostly stable on the menu which lists the fried oysters dish at $19.99 and the shrimp-and-scallop scampi at $24.99 as he welcomes old customers back.

He can’t keep going on like this, though, he says. One recent month, High Tide Harry’s raked in record revenue and yet Heretick was saddled with a $14,000 loss.

“We hope,” he says, “that when we do have to have a little bit of a price increase, that everybody’s understanding that we did everything we could.”

Bloomberg contributed to this report. This story was changed to reflect that chef Chad White is changing the name of the lobster roll to the “ultimate roll” on Sunday to reflect its changing ingredients at the High Tide Lobster Bar.

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