Lobster is upscale. Hot dog buns are not. Crack the former, toast and butter the latter, maybe mix in a bit of celery and mayonnaise, and you have the ultimate in shabby-chic cuisine: the lobster roll. The dish is often bought at battered roadside shacks that dot New England’s coastal regions, a downscale setting that serves as a reminder of lobster’s unpretentious early history as fish bait. The roll’s place on select seasonal McDonald’s menus throughout New England—along with the fact that eating one doesn’t require an adult to wear a bib—has further cemented its place as the only lobster dish ready for mass consumption.
Whether as a treat for the common man or an excuse to slum it for the well-to-do, the lobster roll was never terribly hip, edgy, or controversial. Until last year, when a Brooklyn artist and chef reinvented the lobster roll as delicious underground performance art.
Using the moniker Dr. Claw, the thirtysomething chef began boiling batches of lobsters in his home kitchen and using the meat in rolls he sold—without the requisite licenses and permit—in Greenpoint, a Brooklyn neighborhood populated by Polish Americans and an ever-increasing numbers of hipsters. In order to skirt the law, Claw—whose real name is widely published but whom I chose not to identify here so that he could speak freely to me—devised a system that would be the envy of even the most enterprising drug dealers on The Wire. Claw’s customers first had to friend him on Facebook. Then, if they checked out, Claw would provide the potential customer with a phone number, exchange texts when the roll was ready, and hand off the goods in a plain brown bag.
Claw says he initially sold the food out of his apartment. Only after he had to move his sales to the streets did he go from mere chef-entrepreneur to the self-styled “lobstah pushah.” “I can’t take credit for any of it, I’ve got to be honest,” Claw said in an early October interview conducted over coffee and donuts at the Peter Pan Bakery in Greenpoint. “I was forced to do it on the street because the fire department came and my landlord didn’t want me to do it at my place. So I was all bummed out. I mean, half of [the draw of buying lobster rolls] was coming into my nautical-themed apartment. It was literally underground—downstairs—and it was cool.
“And then this kid came up to me and just did this thing—he walked this way and I just walked that way,” Claw says, motioning, “and everything was just born out of that moment. I was like, ‘That kid has clearly bought drugs on the street before. He knows the system.’ I don’t even know how the money just ended up in my hand. He’s got the roll. And we didn’t say a word.”
[Article continues after the video, "Lobsters Invade D.C.!"]
Thus was born Claw’s lobstah pushah persona. He perfected his act with an Ali G-style costume that mixed lobster- and Boston-sports-themed attire and a thick, gold-spray-painted chain holding up a large lobster claw (also spray-painted gold). Dr. Claw was now equal parts “culinary” and “art.” And if the lobster rolls were good enough to hook customers, it was Claw’s performance that kept them coming back.
“You do the cash/crustacean handoff in literally three seconds, and then you’re on your way,” says John Hendrickson, a longtime Greenpoint resident and frequent Dr. Claw customer. “And the rolls were sublime—hot grilled bun, at least half a pound of warm fresh lobster, copious melted butter, and nothing else.”
Sadly, Claw’s success was also enough to place him on the radar of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which regulates food safety in the city. The agency was hot on Claw’s delicious, buttery tail for some months before it finally forced him to shut down his operation in August.
Claw says he can’t envision himself becoming a “legitimate” full-time operation. He balks at the idea of opening up his own mobile food-vending business—more commonly known as a “food truck.” But even if Claw wanted to open up a shiny new food truck in New York City, he simply cannot do so. In fact, no one in New York City can, the result of the city’s dazzlingly draconian vending regulations.
To be fair to New York City, other jurisdictions boast equally stupid food truck laws. In North Carolina, for example, Asheville vendor Justin Smudde of Bandido’s Burritos complains that it’s illegal for a city food vendor operating in a public area to “assemble any kind of food” except hot dogs. “So you can grill the hot dog,” says Smudde. “Boil the hot dog. Put relish on there. Whatever. Chili. You know—whatever you want. For me, I can’t make a burrito on the spot. I can’t grill the meat for the burrito, or any of that stuff, or grill up a tortilla.” In exchange for its beneficence in allowing him to make burritos on private property, North Carolina requires Smudde to obtain a mere four operating licenses.
Lobsters Migrate from NYC to D.C.
Susan Povich owns Brooklyn’s Red Hook Lobster Pound, which supplied Claw with his lobster meat. Povich knows the heartbreak of food truck regulation all too well, having tried and failed to open her own lobster roll truck. “New York has limits on the number of local food [permits] that they issue,” Povich says. “There’s been a waiting list for, like, 25 years.”
Matt Shapiro—an attorney with New York City’s Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit organization that defends the rights of city vendors—explains the distinction between vending licenses, which are widely available, and vending permits, which the city refuses to issue to entrepreneurs. “If you want to become a food vendor you need to have a license, which is like an ID card for yourself, which anyone can get,” says Shapiro. “You have to take a food handling class. And then you’re able to sell food on a permitted food cart or truck.