Do lobster prices have anything to do with the McDonald’s lobster roll?

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Lobster is a summertime favorite in New England — and it’s getting even more popular.

Since at least 1990, lobster sales have increased significantly in New England, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Total sales dipped from 2005 and 2010, but they have made a comeback to bring in nearly $470 million in 2013.

In addition, the pounds of lobster sold nearly doubled from 2007 to 2013.

So given this trend, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that McDonald’s brought back the lobster roll on its New England menus last week. In fact, the last time McDonald’s offered the lobster roll in Connecticut was in 2005, right around the time lobster sales peaked. (It’s been going on and off the menu since 1993.)

McDonald's lobster roll in the TrendCT office — for research.

“People have been asking for it, to be honest. It’s something they’ve been asking for since we took it off the menu,” said Scott Taylor, owner and operator of several McDonald’s in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. “One thing McDonald’s does allow operators to do is bring in local tastes or preferences depending on their market. Like sometimes down south they’ll have grits.”

The fast-food chain held their official first lobster tasting in Enfield.

So, in the spirit of what The Awl did with the McRib — which was finding the correlation that McDonald’s only brought back the pork sandwich when the price of pork was lower — TrendCT sought to see if the same price relationship were true for the McDonald’s lobster roll.

In 2005, the last time McDonald’s had the lobster roll on its menu in Connecticut, prices in New England were at a 20-year high.

But annual prices don’t tell the full story, because the cost of lobster spikes in the winter and spring months, while dropping in the summer. And given that, it makes sense that McDonald’s has only offered lobster rolls in the summer. (Plus, a lobster roll for Thanksgiving doesn’t sound right.)

What about this time?

The cost of lobster is relatively high now compared to historic prices. In fact, this past winter and spring, lobster prices shot up, peaking in May at a staggering $13.42 per pound. (Note that in the chart below, we indexed prices to the value of the 2010 dollar to compare apples to apples, so the May 2015 number reflects that adjustment.)

And McDonald’s started buying its supply in the winter.

“We don’t have a way to really process the lobster,” said Taylor. “This is sourced and coming from the supplier that we have. It comes in precooked and sealed and frozen. So they actually started fishing for the lobster for our six-week program back in February to get enough supply to have it for these restaurants.”

Why the spike in price this spring?

A colder winter meant that lobsters were shedding their shell later than usual, delaying the season and making the early catch much smaller. But by June, lobster season was in full swing and prices plummeted to $4.76 per pound. Price normally rises in March and April, according to the NOAA data.

Interestingly, the last time lobster season had such a late start was in 2005, which was also the last time that McDonald’s sold their version of the lobster roll.

The verdict

So according to this data, it doesn’t seem McDonald’s introduces its lobster roll when lobster is cheapest. In fact, the last two times it has been offered, the price was relatively high.

Is it from Connecticut?

As we sink our teeth into the McDonald’s lobster roll — or any lobster roll — we have to ask: How likely is it that the crustacean is from Connecticut?

As it turns out, it’s becoming more and more unlikely.

While production has increased in New England, that trend is the opposite in Connecticut.

Much of New England’s increase has been in Maine, the largest supplier of lobster nationwide. Production in 2013 was five times greater than it was in 1990. But in Connecticut and Rhode Island, production has plummeted. In Connecticut, fisherman produced just 127,000 pounds of lobster in 2013 — down from a whopping 3.7 million pounds in 1998. This drop reflects a drastic decline in the lobster population in Long Island Sound.

(Note: In chart below, unclick Maine in the legend so you can see more definition in data for the other states.)

So chances are, your McDonald’s lobster roll is not made from Connecticut lobster.

The $7.99 sandwich will be sold in New England and Canada — except in Vermont and Fairfield County — through August.

“I’m selling much more than we thought we would sell even, and we were kind of optimistic. So we may go shorter than that [six weeks] if we run out of supply,” said Taylor.

What do you think?

  • Wells Amy

    I just had one today!!! It was very very good. Only $8.00? I’ve had similar lobster roll in Maine and it costed $20.00 (don’t care about coleslaws or fries, they are bad anyway.) I’d stick to Lobster roll this summer. I normally don’t eat any fast food but hey, Lobster roll isn’t fast food. 🙂

  • Nate

    I think your verdict is a little off:

    “So according to this data, it doesn’t seem McDonald’s introduces
    its lobster roll when lobster is cheapest. In fact, the last two times
    it has been offered, the price was relatively high.”

    If McDonald’s begins sourcing through the winter they 100% are locking in cheap per pound prices due the the massive amount of volume they’re ordering. No one can accurately predict the weather — what this seems to tell me is that McDonald’s likely locked in a price around ~$4-$5 per lb and then the combination of the cold winter and large volume they ordered caused a massive a shortage in supply during April/May. You may also see some bias in the data depending on whether the McDonald’s orders were all booked and accounted for in the Federal Dealer’s price at the time of order (aka Dec-Feb) or at the time of delivery. If they were in fact booked at the time of order, McDonald’s actually got one of the better deals in the last five years at ~$4 per lb.