New York City hasn’t always been a lobster roll town.
Fifteen years ago, Povich set out to change that. He first learned to love lobster in the backyard of his grandparents’ house in Maine, which had a kosher kitchen but a roped-off outdoor space so the family could enjoy seafood.
She and her husband, Ralph, started by selling whole lobsters out of a building they had purchased in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Soon after, he drove seven hours to Maine several times a week to bring back fresh lobster meat and split-top rolls, which the couple believes are much better suited to a lobster roll than the split-top version, the only guy back then. Available in New York.
They built a thriving business and earned a reputation as a great place to hang out on a summer Saturday afternoon.
The pandemic upended everything at Red Hook Lobster Pound. Prices increased across the board, and by mid-2022, Povich felt he had no choice but to raise the price of his signature item, a lobster roll and fries.
Today, business seems precarious. The restaurant is open year-round, but the lobster rolls are truly a treat when the weather is warm, and fewer people came to Red Hook this summer, a particularly rainy and humid season. Sales are down for the first time in years, Povich said, and winter is on the way.
Ms. Povich has deep relationships with her lobster suppliers and said she is getting the best deal possible for the best quality meat. She is not willing to downgrade her very good frozen fries to average quality ones. But she’s already made some concessions to an economy that has hit restaurants across the city.
He stopped offering free coleslaw with a lobster roll after noticing many customers throwing it in the trash.
He switched from porcelain plates to aluminum cake plates, which are better suited to outdoor dining and require less water and labor to clean.
And the restaurant’s longtime lobster dinner, which costs $25 on Wednesday nights and is beloved by locals and loyal customers, is put on hold when the cost of lobster rises.
But some costs cannot be avoided.
Every once in a while, a lobster claw falls to the ground and has to be thrown away, which is especially painful when each ounce costs $2.50.
It costs almost $400 a month to keep the website up and running and another $450 to list the restaurant on Resy’s reservation service. Povich has accepted that he will continue to lose money on Seamless, the food delivery service, where a lobster roll and fries costs $44.77, and the restaurant takes home $24.75.
Recently, two customers used fake credit cards to place online orders, he said, so the restaurant had to absorb that couple hundred dollars. But staying on delivery apps could attract new customers, so it seems too risky to stop.
Then there’s the near-constant cycle of repairs and maintenance, the 3 percent credit card charges that add up to about $73,000 a year, and even the liability policy that holds that a customer with a wobbly molar who breaks a tooth in a Lobster roll gets $5,000 worth of dental work covered by the restaurant, no questions asked.
And complaints about prices have started to come in. Clients almost never say anything in person. But on Yelp or Google Reviews, the complaints you see are consistent: It’s not enough lobster to justify the price. Ms. Povich doesn’t see a way to reduce the cost without taking shortcuts.
She just wants New Yorkers struggling with rent, heating bills and groceries to understand that she’s dealing with the same problems, in the same unaffordable city.
Still, Povich said, “I’d rather people complain about my prices than my food.”