The U.S. lobster industry is on the hunt for new consumers, pitching live lobster to Southeast Asia’s growing middle class and gourmet lobster rolls to Berlin foodies.

American dealers are trying to offset market losses caused by unfavorable tariffs in China and Europe. Live lobster sales from the U.S. to China had been on pace to double in 2018 until China slapped a 25 percent tariff on lobster in July and the Maine-to-China lobster gusher sputtered out. Year-to-date exports to Europe are down by 34 percent, too, as a result of a trade deal that gives Canadian dealers preferential access to that market.

“We’ve seen turmoil in the overseas lobster market, but we’ve also seen resilience in this industry,” said Colleen Coyne of Food Export USA-Northeast, an agency that helps regional food exporters promote their products. “The U.S. lobster industry knows how to build markets. We obviously hope that China and Europe come back, but until they do, the industry is going to do what it does best: develop new products and new markets.”

The industry has redoubled its efforts this year, Coyne said, hitting the trade show circuit hard. Seven lobster companies – the most ever – exhibited at the seafood trade show in Hong Kong in September, she said. So many lobster exporters wanted to go to the Seafood Expo Global in Brussels, which has been the biggest of the seafood trade shows, that Coyne’s agency had to get permission to enlarge its pavilion at the sold-out event in May.

After the Hong Kong show, three Maine lobster exporters – Ready Seafood of Portland, Maine Coast of York and Greenhead Lobster of Stonington – traveled on to Vietnam to participate in a trade mission there, touring seafood markets and groceries, learning about the needs of the country’s growing middle class and meeting with current and potential buyers. Daniel Speranza of Ready Seafood came away hopeful from his first trip to Vietnam.

“The lobster market in Vietnam is growing along with the economy,” Speranza said. “I think they are going to be the next China.”

MARKET POSSIBILITIES

Everywhere he looked, Speranza saw signs of growth: new high-rises visible on every horizon, people spending freely and a new generation of young travelers who have visited China and the U.S. and are returning home to Vietnam ready to try new products and foods. These are the consumers that he believes will turn lobster from a luxury item eaten at a hotel banquet or wedding to a middle-class meal that can be eaten at home.

“They’re not there yet, but that day is coming, sooner rather than later,” Speranza said.

Ready can ship live lobster from a Maine dock to an airport in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City in under two days, including a stopover in Qatar. Speranza doesn’t know where all Ready lobsters end up, but he knows at least some of them are distributed to Vietnam’s growing network of resorts and hotels, where they are eaten by well-heeled tourists who visit the country’s beautiful beaches and Buddhist pagodas.

Lobsters in this 2012 photo are ready for market at Portland’s Ready Seafood, one of three Maine exporters that went on a trade mission to Vietnam this fall.

The Vietnamese people have a strong preference for live seafood, which helps the lobster’s cause, Coyne said. In supermarkets there, shoppers browse elaborate live seafood displays, with clams, shrimp and even fin fish available for purchase straight from the tank. Like in other countries in Southeast Asia, Vietnamese seafood buyers appreciate America’s reputation for a strong food safety program, which helps minimize anxiety over trying a new species, she said.

Maine Coast has been shipping lobster to Vietnam for a couple of years now, and while the company considers it a very viable market, executives there say the Vietnam market alone cannot replace China any time soon. Part of it boils down to population size – Vietnam has 95 million people, while China has close to 1.4 billion. But Vietnamese also eat lobster differently from the Chinese, said Sheila Adams, head of marketing for Maine Coast.

The Vietnamese tend to eat lobster family style, buying one or maybe two whole lobsters to be passed around at the restaurant table along with other main and side dishes to be shared by the whole group, Adams said. The Chinese used to do that, but as the popularity of lobster and Chinese wealth have risen, Chinese diners are more likely to eat their own lobster, Adams said.

While Vietnam alone may not offset Chinese losses, Southeast Asia as a whole could help ease the pain, Adams said. Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore also are developing an emerging tourist class that has a taste for lobster, with high-end hotels serving it to an increasingly rich international constituency that has eaten it in China or the U.S., she said. The middle classes there are still small, but as they grow, so will the demand for lobster.

“But it’s very hard work,” Adams said. “It took us six years to build up China. Tariffs came on with a flip of the switch, but a new market doesn’t. It takes time.”

LOBSTER AS STREET FOOD

As the industry is trying to build new markets in Southeast Asia, it is counting on new products – in this case, the lobster roll – to revive demand in Germany, one of the countries in Europe that had seemingly lost its appetite for live lobster in recent years. While much of Europe is choosing to buy its live lobster from Canada, which has a good exchange rate and no import tariff, German buyers tell Coyne they don’t want to buy live lobster at all.

Animal rights advocates there target retailers who place lobsters in tanks for sale, calling the practice inhumane, causing many to drop the product, Coyne said. In 2010, German buyers imported $3.3 million worth of live U.S. lobster, according to trade data taken by WISERTrade.org from the U.S. Census. But in 2017, Germany imported just $92,000.

Market research led Food Export USA to believe that lobster rolls could be the lobster product to bring German consumers back. In September, the agency orchestrated a “Lobster Rumble” at Berlin Food Week. Spreegold, a gourmet hot dog restaurant that caters to Germans’ love of sausages, prepared three different kinds of lobster rolls and asked consumers to pick one to be added to its permanent menu at a price of 15 euros (about $17).

“It was wildly popular,” Coyne said. “Two hundred lobster rolls sold in two hours. Nine hundred total. Could have been much more, but they ran out of lobster.”

A lot of those who ate the rolls were German journalists, who wrote rave reviews about what they called a U.S. street food. That revision of the lobster stereotype – from freshly boiled, center of the plate meal at an expensive, white-tablecloth restaurant to a different kind of hot dog that can be eaten several times a week for lunch or dinner – could help lobster break entirely new ground in a market that many thought had played out.

“We’re eager to try this kind of promotion in other European countries,” Coyne said. “Americans love lobster rolls, and we think Europeans will, too.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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