London is a long way from the village of Cutler, where I was born and raised. At times the two communities can feel worlds apart – both geographically and culturally. Not only is London home to almost eight and a half million more people than Cutler, the British city is also at the cutting-edge of the latest trends in food, fashion and beyond.
London has now overtaken Paris as Europe’s dining capital. More than 150 new restaurants open in the city each year and the food served at those restaurants influences dining trends around the world. Along with the Brits, millions of international travellers passing through London are exposed to London’s leading-edge cuisine. In 2013 alone, around 180,000 Chinese visited London, spending on luxury goods and dining at the latest and greatest restaurants. The U.K. capital is also a popular destination for big spenders from the Middle East. These travellers return home inspired by what they have seen and consumed. London’s global and cultural influence is just one reason I am both excited and slightly worried about the recent rise in the popularity of lobster, lobster rolls in particular, in the city.
When I moved to London for business in 2005, I was interested to see how lobster was perceived and consumed within this vast city. I come from a four- generation lobster fishing family and spent much of my youth working as a sternman on my father’s boat. The industry is in my blood and, while I am no longer of that world, I remain deeply interested in how lobstermen’s hard-earned catches are regarded and sold in urban environments. I quickly learned that up to 80% of lobster consumed in the U.K. comes from Canada (England simply can’t meet consumer demand from its depleted stocks of Cornish lobster).
Most of that lobster passes through Billingsgate Fish Market before being sold to high-end London restaurants.
Back in 2005, those restaurants almost always positioned lobster as the most expensive item on the menu and, as such, London diners looked at lobster as an exclusive entrée to be consumed only on special occasions .Lobster rolls were unheard of. Chefs stuck to traditional entrees such as lobster thermidor. With lobster entrees costing as much as £42 (around $72), it is easy to see how America’s favourite crustacean remained an inaccessible luxury for most Londoners.
All of this changed in 2011 with the opening of a restaurant called Burger and Lobster. The restaurant, owned by Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Zelman, has completely changed the lobster scene in London. Zelman brought lobster to the masses through a simple restaurant concept. His restaurant serves only two items – burgers and lobsters – at one set price of £20 (approximately $34 USD). London diners loved it. While not cheap, the price of Zelman’s lobster (served grilled or as a lobster roll) was about half that of most other restaurants. The restaurant’s set price of £20 no matter what was ordered made lobster feel more affordable and accessible. It was no longer the most expensive item on the menu. In fact, it was the same price as a hamburger. A very expensive hamburger, yes, but context influences perception and in that context lobster felt like a bargain.
Zelman’s pared-down menu allowed him to turn over a high volume of lobster quickly, which in turn allowed him to have more control over his lobster supply. Instead of buying his lobster from Billingsgate Market, Zelman was able to purchase his lobsters in bulk directly from dealers in Canada and fly them into London himself. These lobsters are stored in huge holding tanks in his restaurants – the tanks themselves providing a bit of theatre to enthusiastic diners.
Just how successful has Burger and Lobster become in London? The statistics speak for themselves. In less than two years, Zelman has expanded from one to five locations, with more locations rumored to open. Each restaurant serves more than 1,000 customers on a Saturday night. And perhaps the most impressive statistic of all is that, within two months of opening the first restaurant, Burger & Lobster became the world’s largest buyer of Canadian lobster. It now sells more than 2,000 lobsters in its five London restaurants daily, making the chain the UK’s main vendor of the delicacy.
Not only has Zelman’s Burger and Lobster chain been able to sell over 700,000 individual lobsters to
London diners annually, it has also paved the way for more lobster-themed eateries in and around the U.K. capital. Restaurants such as The Lobster Pot, The Lobster House and The Lobster Roll Deli all opened their doors in 2014. A ‘Steak and Lobster’ dining establishment has popped up in London and Manchester. B.O.B.’s lobster food truck is roaming the city streets dishing out lobster rolls as I write this
I am delighted that Londoners can finally experience the simple indulgence of a lobster roll and that our beloved crustacean has become more popular and accessible within this global urban hub. I am excited at how the stratospheric rise of lobster in London will potentially influence dining trends in the Middle East, Far East and beyond. I am glad I can finally get a lobster roll in London. At the same time I worry that, to date, the London lobster boom has no links to the Maine lobster brand. Zelman’s lobster comes from Canada; his restaurants do little to promote the provenance of his product (he has now bought a share in a lobster company to get rid of dealers and trade with himself directly). B.O.B’s food truck reportedly source its lobster roll meat from Cornish lobsters. While there is room for many players in this market and, as the old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, I worry Maine lobster could get left behind if we don’t strike while the iron is hot. As most Maine residents will agree, there are differences among lobsters based on where they are caught and how they are treated during and after harvest. I would love to see some effort to educate the multi-cultural consumers of London on the Maine lobster brand. Otherwise, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, they will be left thinking a lobster is a lobster is a lobster!