Thirty to forty thousand. That’s how many lobster rolls Burger & Lobster has sold in four short months at Jewel Changi Airport (despite being its smallest outlet worldwide), says its regional head of operations Riccardo LaMonica.

“We have been working on this (Singapore) project for over two years, and seeing the support spurs me and the team to do better,” adds Mr LaMonica at its new and more lavish Raffles Arcade outlet which opened on Sep 27.

But the London chain was not the first to introduce the indulgent treat to the Singapore market.

The Market Grill famously impressed with its rendition, where live, whole lobsters were grilled upon order, tossed in a herbed pommery mayonnaise and stuffed into buttery brioche rolls (S$48), in 2013. Soon after, db Bistro & Oyster Bar by Daniel Boulud at Marina Bay Sands put its Maine Lobster Roll with tarragon aioli (S$42) on the menu in 2013, while Pince & Pints began operations with a Truffle Lobster Roll (S$68) at Duxton in 2014.

Lobster rolls’ popularity got a boost with the arrival of more affordable options, such as Lobsters & Ice Cream (2019) and Chunky Lobsters (2018). The latter became a viral sensation for peddling the luxurious roll at just S$16. It currently has three successful outlets – Oxley Towers, The Cathay and VivoCity – plus another in Bugis by December 2019.

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“It’s the appeal of upmarket, downmarket,” explains executive chef Johnathan Kinsella of db Bistro & Oyster Bar by Daniel Boulud. “People enjoy having this rich ingredient in a casual format; it’s luxe yet accessible.”

Further spurring its marketability in Singapore is lobsters’ perceived value. Leonard Koh, co-founder and director of Chunky Lobsters, says it best, “People can easily dine on crabs at tze char places. Lobsters, on the other hand, are not as accessible to the mass market, and you’d have to make an occasion out of it and go to fancier establishments, such as JUMBO Seafood or Tung Lok Seafood.”


Roll Call

What’s surprising is that this opulent dish did not get its start in a fancy, Michelin starred restaurant. It began as a sandwich in, depending on who you ask, Maine during the 1970s or Perry’s in Milford, Connecticut, circa 1929.

These New England states are known for their seafood, courtesy of their proximity to the waters connecting them to Nova Scotia. Hot or cold, variations evolved as it moved south to New York City, but the iconic look of chunky lobster meat overflowing out of a bun remained – a key to its rise in fame.

“Just take a look at Luke’s Lobster, which has made such a wave expanding into Tokyo. It is such an Insta-worthy, marketable dish with its open-face brioche halves, stacked with a hefty serving of mayo-laced lobster chunks,” describes Mr Koh.

Tryson Quek of Anti:Dote, likewise, believes its success lies in social media. His version comes with lobster-oil infused mayonnaise as well as an eye-catching topping of caviar and charcoal bun (S$28). Be it through sharing of photos or worth of mouth, Chef Quek reveals that up to 70 per cent of guests dine in, particularly during lunch, just for the roll.

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What has ultimately supported this “fad” as a mainstay in the dining scene is its versatility.

Burger & Lobster impresses both regulars and new fans with local and outlet exclusives, such as the decadent Uni, Lobster & Caviar Lobster Roll (S$50) using uni-infused butter and their homemade brioche buns.

Lobsters & Ice Cream regularly introduces new flavours including mentaiko, Spanish seaweed and, even, fried with sriracha mayo.

Mr Koh explains that “this is a good way to keep people coming back,” noting that a mono-product menu can eventually bore consumers. “For us, the plan is to continue capturing crowds with our core products as well as seasonal flavours for variety. It also doubles as market research, allowing us to see the reception of new flavour combinations.”


Finding a good catch

The prices, of course, correspond to the quality.

Places like Burger & Lobster, Pince & Pints and The Naked Finn command a higher price tag due to operational costs involved with keeping live lobsters and running a restaurant.

The former, in particular, ships certified hardshell lobsters from Nova Scotia which are kept alive in storage facilities by a team of marine biologists. “Regular tests are run daily to ensure that the lobsters are maintained in optimal conditions up till the moment they are fished out of the tank and prepared upon order,” says Mr LaMonica.

“Consumers are now more discerning of the choices available and the quality of the rolls,” says chef Kenneth Lin of The Market Grill. But, understandably, not everyone can afford to shell out up to S$60 for a roll.

“We know that S$16 is still not something people can afford on a daily basis either. The lower price does increase frequency,” says Mr Koh, who explains that he has kept operation costs low with frozen Canadian lobsters, a streamlined prep area and a grab-and-go concept (much like Luke’s Lobsters) in higher footfall areas in the CBD and city.

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The key to knowing if you’re getting a good deal, regardless of the price tag, comes down to a couple of factors, according to the aforementioned chefs and industry leaders.

“Look at how busy the place is. When it comes to live seafood, you need sufficient turnaround time to have new batches of lobsters shipped in,” says Chef Kinsella.

Mr LaMonica adds that an open kitchen concept, much like the ones at Burger & Lobster, are a sign that the establishment is proud of their product. “In our case, we have the best, if I dare say, the Ferrari of lobsters, and we want to show that off to the customers.”

Chef Quek offers this handy tip of “looking out for the reddish hue in the lobster’s flesh”, while Chef Lin says that a proper roll should “have the entire lobster, including the claw, knuckle and tails and not a mish-mash of chopped up parts”.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.