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Behind the Line: Lobster wager
Lobster ME brings New England flavors to the desert
By Lauren Kramer
November 05, 2011
When the Las Vegas-based LEV Restaurant Group was considering its next venture, its partners noticed Sin City was particularly under-crustaceaned. So they opened Lobster ME, a fast-casual concept that aims to bring the taste of New England to the desert. Located on the Vegas strip in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, this past August Lobster ME debuted a walk-up counter-service eatery open for three meals a day.
The décor at Lobster ME utilizes traditional colors, signage and materials of Maine, along with iconic coastal elements such as a buoy chandelier, onion-shaped lights and functional lobster traps. Creating, developing and operating innovative F&B concepts like this one is the hallmark of LEV Restaurant Group, which was founded in 2002 by Jeffrey Fine. The group owns iburgers and operates 32 units of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Jamba Juice, collectively.
The menu at Lobster ME is a mixture of traditional and non-traditional New England dishes. Lobster bisque and lobster and shrimp ceviche are offered alongside lobster mac & cheese; lobster grilled cheese; lobster, eggs & tots; lobster rolls; the lobsicle — fried lobster on a stick; and for the sweet-toothed, lobster ice cream. The dishes range in price from a $4 lobster shot to a $22 lobster roll combo, with most entrées in the $9-to-$15 range.
With only 1,000 square feet in which to work and up to eight staff at any one time, there’s no place for live lobster tanks. Instead the crustaceans are harvested in Maine, processed and frozen in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and shipped to Vegas six days a week. Zachary Conine, VP of development for LEV, would not disclose information on the company’s lobster supplier.
“Because the concept is so new, we are effectively month-to-month on lobster purchasing,” he says. “As we better understand volumes and usage, we intend to extend that.” The LEV culinary team had planned a sourcing trip to Maine this fall to discuss Lobster ME’s actual needs. “We also like seeing the operations we work with; how they present themselves, how their employees feel about the company and whether or not they’re good stewards of the sea,” Conine says.
“We spent a lot of time finding the right lobster with the quality we needed,” he says. “We’re big on authentic items, which is why we worked with Lance and Snyder’s of Hanover to bring in Cape Cod Potato Chips, and with Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium to bring in lobster ice cream. The ice cream contains the buttery saltiness of the lobster and the sweet creaminess of the vanilla ice cream. It’s a truly unique product they’ve been making since the 1960s, and it’s never been reproduced anywhere else as successfully.”
Conine and his team visited 125 restaurants before launching Lobster ME, its menu developed by a culinary team of 10. They focused intently on the details, he says.
“For our most popular dish, the Maine lobster roll, we needed the right split-top brioche roll but we couldn’t find it in the desert,” he says. “So we fly it in from Massachusetts. It’s an expensive product to deliver, but Vegas is about getting something different than what you’d get at home, and a lobster roll is the perfect expression of that.”
The fast-casual restaurant has been serving an average of 500 meals a day and sales are on target with the group’s expectations, says Conine. “A lobster roll is not something most people are used to, and particularly for international guests and those from the West Coast, we’re having to educate them as to why it’s a good deal, and why it’s amazing. It’s a process; it takes time,” he says.
The lobster roll is buttered and grilled, served with the meat from a 1 1/4-pound lobster (approximately 4 ounces) and a dash of Lobster ME’s secret spice.
In addition to lobster-based dishes, Lobster ME also serves shrimp rolls, shrimp salads and New England clam chowder.
“We’re experimenting with different types of lobster rolls that haven’t been seen before, and we’ll move some things on the menu around depending on what’s selling,” says Conine. “But this is one of the entertainment hubs of the world, with 40 million people coming here each year. If there was ever a place to experiment with a new flavor or profile, this is the place to do it.”Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia