SOUTHWEST HARBOR — People around the U.S. love their lobster. But when there’s a pandemic and the piers close for the winter, what are cross-country, crustacean-crazed customers to do when they get the urge for fresh lobster rolls?
Have them shipped.
Shipping lobsters direct from the dock to hungry consumers has become a hit, especially after the onset of the pandemic.
“The direct-to-consumer business has taken off,” said Marianne LaCroix, the executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. She didn’t have firm numbers, but anecdotally she’s heard that businesses are seeing surging demand and more dealers have started shipping live lobsters straight to people’s doors. “I think a lot of new people discovered it during the pandemic.”
Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor has leaned into the direct shipping market.
“It’s increasing every year,” said Justin Snyder, Beal’s dock manager. “Demand for this stuff is through the roof.”
The busy season for shipping is just about to start and Snyder estimated that the pier will pack about 200 boxes a day for the next six weeks to be sent out far and wide.
One loyal customer calls twice a week from California to lay out his orders, and Beal’s handles at least a couple weddings a year where a party will want 120 to 150 lobsters shipped overnight to locales such as Catalina Island or Honolulu.
The Winter Harbor Lobster Co-Op has been shipping live lobster for about 12 years. The market had been slowly increasing over that time until it skyrocketed over the past two years.
“It started out when the pandemic started because the restaurants were closed,” said Susan Soper, the co-op manager. “They just had to have their lobster.”
Winter Harbor has also seen a rise in big orders. Soper recently sent 100 live lobsters to be shipped to Grand Rapids, Mich.; last week, she got two 30-lobster orders in one day. And this all has come before the traditional holiday rush.
“It has picked up a lot,” she said. “And it’s still going.”
Shipping lobsters isn’t new. In 1870s, the state of California tried unsuccessfully to transplant lobsters to the West Coast, author Colin Woodard wrote in his book “Lobster Coast.” Around that time, private dealers in Boston and Portland had better luck and started reliably shipping live lobsters by train to destinations as far as St. Louis. In 1877, a Portland firm built a special lobster tank with a seawater pump that safely shepherded 200 of 250 lobsters on a cross-Atlantic journey to England, where they sold for 60 to 70 cents a pound.
But the popularity of shipping them directly to customers, a combination of the local and national sales market, seems to be a new shift in the industry that is here for the long haul.
“I think it’s here to stay as one of the sale channels,” LaCroix said.
Beal’s ships live lobsters and lobster roll kits. Both get to their destination anywhere in the U.S. within 24 hours, and shipping is included.
On a recent afternoon, Snyder packed up a lobster roll kit destined for Chicago. It came with a pound of fresh-picked lobster meat, four brioche buns, butter, mayonnaise and Fox Family potato chips. Ice packs keep the whole thing cool. The kit runs $200.
The company does its shipping, branded as Beal’s at Home, directly through its website and through Goldbelly, a sort of digital food court for iconic foods. Winter Harbor also sells on its own website, as well as fresh meat through Amazon.
“It’s all about trying to bring Maine to people that can’t get here,” Snyder said.
This market doesn’t come without its challenges, though. Soper said online orders can be taxing on local sales, especially now with many piers experiencing an employee shortage. It also helps if you’re on the mainland. LaCroix said the Cranberry Isles co-op started shipping but dropped it because of the logistical headaches of being an outer island.
But Snyder said he has good relationships with his shippers and there isn’t a fresher way to get lobster to seafood-starved parts of the country. His fans seem to agree.
“The lobster was fresh, sweet and delicious,” a Goldbelly reviewer from Orinda, Calif., wrote. “It’s such a treat to enjoy a part of Maine when I can’t be there.”