Market price. Two words on a menu that strike fear into the wallets of customers.
And here on Cape Cod, those words are frequently associated with fried clams, the must-have menu item for a certain type of Cape Cod restaurant. In fact, clams have become so expensive in the past couple of years that some restaurant owners fear the iconic tourist meal is becoming a luxury item.
“You know how you buy oysters by the piece?” asked John Ohman, owner of Liam’s at Nauset Beach. “I am envisioning a day when people are buying fried clams by the piece.”
“It’s not imminent,” said Ohman. “But directionality means a lot. It’s like, tick, tick, tick. I’ve noticed it for three years.” And as prices continue to go up, Ohman said, “What do you do, charge someone $35 for a clam dinner? It’s almost embarrassing.”
Mike Lewis, owner of Seafood Sam’s in Falmouth, said fried clams by the piece “wouldn’t surprise me.”
“You know how you buy oysters by the piece? I am envisioning a day when people are buying fried clams by the piece.” – John Ohman, owner of Liam’s at Nauset Beach
“I don’t know if they would get that expensive,” said Aaron Brochu, owner of Big Rock Oyster Company of Harwich. “But restaurants are going to have to start putting them at market price. The price does fluctuate a lot between now and the height of summer.”
Lewis said of fried clams, “It’s the only item on my menu that is market priced other than boiled lobster.”
Don Berig, owner of the Lobster Claw Restaurant in Orleans, said he has never raised the price of fried clams more than $1 in any year. “This year, I went up $2,” he said.
There is another way of saying “Market Price,” that Berig said he may have to consider in the future. “For some items,” he said, “I may have to put, ‘Prices Subject To Change Without Notice.’ ”
And Ohman noted, “I’ve got to put a date on my menus.” Some people come in and grab a menu and then put in their drawer for years and expect the prices to stay the same, he said.
“I’ve had people pull out an old menu and yell at me, ‘Why isn’t this clam plate $9.99?’ “ said Ohman. “The answer is because it isn’t 1999.”
Wholesale shucked clams are priced by the gallon.
They mostly come from Maine, Essex, Ipswich, Cape Cod, Maryland, and Canada. Each location offers a different quality of clam. Clams are sold fresh or frozen. There is a variance in sizes. There are a lot of variabilities, including widely varying opinions about the quality of clams from, say, Maryland.
But in recent years, the biggest variable is price.
“They could go from a low of $85 a gallon up to $200 a gallon,” said Lewis. “They never used to fluctuate like that.” How quickly does it fluctuate? “It could be that day,” said Lewis. “I could pay $90 today, and $150 tomorrow.”
“A lot of that has to do with Maine,” said Brochu. “When it rains in Maine, they shut it down for a couple of days.” The reason for the shutdown after rain, said Brochu, is concern about pollution from road runoff. “They shut it down for at least 24 hours. Sometimes for two or three days.”
Lewis said, “The government got involved and the regulations got crazy… They’re concerned about everything that never played into it before when nobody got sick for 400 years.”
Besides a spike in prices when it rains in Maine, Lewis said clam prices are also affected by blueberry season in Maine. “All the people that shuck clams are piecemeal workers. They also get piecemeal on blueberries in Maine,” he said. So when it is blueberry season, many shuckers switch jobs for a few weeks,” said Lewis.
Also, said Ohman, “Red tide affects the digging of them. The red tide scourge hits different beds at different times. And then they can’t dig.”
But fish shacks need clams. “It’s becoming, shall we say, a shell game,” said Ohman. “Whose got the clams?”
Plus, as Brochu said, “Demand across the board is up. Everyone is eating seafood.” In fact, Brochu said clam prices right now are already at “summertime prices from two years ago.”
Ohman said that he get clams from Ipswich Shellfish. “For the first time last year I would call them up and instead of saying I want 50 gallons, I would ask, what can I get? They were rationing.”
“A lot of places haven’t opened up yet,” said Brochu, who noted “some places are trying to freeze them and stockpile them.”
Lewis said frozen clams are lesser quality. “You can lock in the price of a frozen product for the whole year, said Lewis. “But I would rather play the game than have a lack of quality,” he said. Lewis buys fresh clams.
The game Lewis referred to is the price game driven by supply and demand. It can be a dangerous game for the buyer, noted Lewis. “If the price goes up to $200, I still have to buy them and then I put them at market price and so nobody buys them from me and I throw them out.”
“It’s really easy to get the price of seafood up,” said Mike Gagne, the director of development for the Ipswich Shellfish Group, which services about 75 customers on Cape Cod, including Liam’s At Nauset Beach and the Lobster Claw.
“It’s supply and demand,” said Gagne. “It’s really true economics.”
In some ways, Gagne was less alarmist than others. “Clams are cyclical,” he said. “It depends on how the seed is and how the seed sticks in the beds.” Different years have different production, he said, and that varies bed to bed.
But Gagne warned of another threat to clams and clam prices, the invasive green crab. “It basically eats small clams,” he said.
The green crabs originated in Asia and came over on the ballast of a ship, said Gagne. “There are areas of Maine that are just infested with them,” he said. Now they are in Ipswich. “They’re invasive and very difficult to control.”
“The green crabs have been here a long time,” said Gagne, but they are getting worse. “Have you heard that guy named Darwin? The crabs have figured out how to survive over the winter here. They have figured out how how to bury themselves in the mud and get through winter.”
And, he added, “They’re coming to a flat near you soon.”
“How many clam diggers are even left? How many sold their home and now it’s a second cottage for somebody – a designer home with a sprinkler system and a maid?” – Mike Gagne, Ipswich Shellfish Group
Wait, there’s more. “Let’s talk about the whole socio-economic makeup of Cape Cod,” said Gagne. “How many clam diggers are even left? How many sold their home and now it’s a second cottage for somebody – a designer home with a sprinkler system and a maid?”
“The Cape is only one little segment,” said Gagne, who said the change is sweeping the East Coast. “Our average clam digger has a small family in a coastal community. They’re almost getting squeezed out because they can’t afford to live in these coastal communities anymore.”
The lack of supply will eventually affect the demand, said Gagne. The price affects “the end user who sits down to eat a plate of fried clams,” he said. “It’s the elderly, who can’t afford $26 or $28 for a plate of clams.”
“How do you get out of the death spiral?” said Gagne. “The higher the price goes, the more the volume goes down… The ginmill at the corner or the family restaurant, they may take it off the menu. That causes demand to go down.”
Brochu said, “A lot of restaurants are supplementing fried clams with fried oysters, which are consistent in quality and the price stays the same all the time.”
“I’ve been doing this for 26 years,” said Gagne, who said price fluctuations like that are common. “That just happened with the blue crabs,” he said, citing how price of blue crab meat got so high that demand went way down.
Of course, there will always be demand, especially at a seafood shack on Cape Cod. “I cannot take them off my menu,” said Berig.
According to Gagne, “The ones that are successful are the ones that charge according to what it costs. The successful restaurants, the price goes up on the menu instead of cutting quality.”
“Tourist wise, it’s the thing,” said Lewis. “I don’t sell nearly as many clams per dollar now as I do in July.”
Even so, Lewis said his volume of clam sales have gone down even as his restaurant sales have gone up. In fact, Lewis said, “If I did not have the clams, it would help my bottom line – not selling clams.”
On the other hand, Lewis said, there is the occasional party of ten that show up and two of the ten have their heart set on fried clams. “If I don’t have fried clams, they all leave,” he said.
It’s sort of a price of admission for a Cape Cod clam shack.
“I think when people go on vacation, if they want fried clams, that’s what they are going to get,” said Brochu.
“My biggest meal besides fried clams,” said Berig, “is the fried fisherman’s platter. And you can’t have the fried fisherman’s platter without fried clams.”
The meal itself says vacation on Cape Cod. There is nothing like succulent, delicious perfectly-cooked fried clams at your favorite clam shack.
“Some people come in here and it’s almost like they’ve been waiting three weeks for their fried clam fix,” said Berig. “I would never want to take that away, and I never will.”