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What's in Store: Acting shellfishly

New York’s Lobster Place jumps on the growing retail-restaurant trend

A sushi bar is one of several ‘eating stations’ at the New York store/restaurant.  - Photo by Max Flatow, courtesy of The Lobster Place
By Christine Blank
August 01, 2013

The management team of The Lobster Place in New York’s popular Chelsea Market neighborhood recognizes that today’s foodies want an interactive experience while shopping for seafood. So when they transformed their 10,000-square-foot, two-story building this spring, they also put in a full-service seafood restaurant, Cull & Pistol, and added small eating stations throughout the store.

“As the largest specialty seafood market in New York City, we serve roughly 3,000 customers a day, so our landlord encouraged us to reconfigure the place,” says Ian MacGregor, owner of The Lobster Place. The market previously did not effectively use retail space that opened up in 2008 after its wholesale operation — also dubbed The Lobster Place — moved to a separate location near the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. “We weren’t able to take advantage of all of the retail space because of capital shortfalls.

“Plus, we had to figure out a way for the folks who were just visiting the area to spend money. It is tough to do if you are only a fish market. This neighborhood has attracted a large tourist trade and a lot of people within New York City,” MacGregor adds. Before the expansion, the retailer was selling 15,000 pounds of cooked lobster a week — primarily to tourists — and operated a successful quick-service seafood operation, the “Shack in the Back,” with lobster rolls, fish and chips and a raw bar. In the store you can also find steamed and live lobsters, a large selection of fresh fish on open ice; a specialty food and appetizer section with smoked fish, caviar and other gourmet offerings; and an extensive “grab and go” section.

“We wanted to remain a great destination for people who want to cook and eat seafood, while making the experience just that: an experience,” MacGregor says. The Lobster Place added the dining areas to appeal to consumers looking for a more interactive event when they eat and shop. “The way people shop for food — particularly at the high end — is changing. The idea that it should be sort of a visceral experience has really caught on. People very much look at it as a lifestyle hobby,” MacGregor says.

At Mario Batali’s New York restaurant and store, Eataly, for example, shoppers can “sort of eat their way through the store,” MacGregor says.

MacGregor and The Lobster Place management team designed various stations that allow shoppers to do the same. At the raw bar, shoppers can order raw or cooked oysters, along with clams, sea urchin, crab and shrimp. “Previously in our shellfish department, we would open any of the oysters for 20 cents, and then shoppers would have to take them somewhere else to eat them. Now we plate them in the store, and you can stand there among the raw seafood, eat and order beer or wine,” MacGregor says.

Likewise, before the remodel, sushi — prepared by trained professionals — was only available for takeout. “Sushi has been enormously successful,” MacGregor says. As a result, the renovated store features an eight-seat dining area where chefs prepare sushi to order. Of course, shoppers have the option of packaged sushi from the grab-and-go section.

“In the supermarket space, the push has been toward packaged products. We go in the opposite direction. We want the customer to feel like he is visiting a fishmonger who deals in volume,” MacGregor says.

If The Lobster Place’s makeover leads to lasting success, before long many other seafood markets may follow suit and also set up eating stations throughout their stores to appeal to foodies hoping to stimulate all their senses as they shop.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

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