For many vacationers and residents along the Northeast coast, summer is synonymous with lobster rolls, fried clams and other seafood delights that restaurants large and small specialize in. But this year, customers may be forced to pay a higher price for their road trip crab legs, crab cakes and more, as the restaurant industry deals with a breakdown in the supply chain due to several factors including a serious labor shortage.
“The seafood industry is experiencing a backlog at U.S. ports as well as navigating a major labor shortage, transportation price hikes, and increased costs of seafood, packaging, and other supplies that are complicating their operations," Melaina Lewis, director of communications, National Fisheries Institute told TODAY Food via email. "This all contributes to higher prices and serious delays in bringing seafood from bait to plate.”
While some restaurants have made the tough decision to pull certain seafood items off their summer menus rather than charge exorbitant prices for them, that's not an option for Yen Lee, general manager of Bethesda Crab House in Bethesda, Maryland, who needs the namesake of his restaurant to satisfy his loyal customers.
"Crabs are available," he told TODAY, explaining that his restaurant has relied on getting crabs locally from Maryland but also from Louisiana, Texas and even Venezuela. "The problem is crab meat. We can't get the people to pick them at a reasonable rate, so the cost is high."
Lee explained that while there are crabs up for grabs, there just aren't enough people to pick the actual crab meat out of them. "You can't pay them enough to do it," he said.
He said that transportation costs are also a factor in getting seafood onto diner's tables. Local crab meat is priced very high now, while the crab meat from the Gulf is "more reasonable," said Lee.
In the beginning of the summer seafood season, Lee's restaurant was forced to do a slight price increase. Other restaurants have dealt with the shortages in a different way. He's seen neighboring eateries switch their menus from offering crab cakes to shrimp cakes, which are more readily available. The substitutions are all due to a situation that's forced us to rethink our favorite summer seafood dishes.
"It makes sense, you can’t make a cream of crab soup at the prices we're seeing now," he said. "You would have to charge 10 dollars a bowl versus five dollars a bowl."
Pair these struggles with the fact that diners, eager to get outside and celebrate summer after a long year-and-a-half indoors during the pandemic, are coming to fancy seafood restaurants and roadside shacks in droves and you have a recipe for a fishy situation.
The key will be for customers to exercise patience and be flexible with their orders.