If you ask Ed McFarland his favorite way to prepare and enjoy a lobster, he keeps it old school. “Steamed, out of the shell, with nothing on it.”
His opinion matters. As the owner of Ed’s Lobster Bar, with locations in New York City and Sag Harbor, he has served thousands of lobsters to his customers since 2007 and has brought his love and respect for the fruits of the seas to his approach of running his business.
“We respect the fishing industry,” says McFarland. “We don’t buy oysters or scallops that have been dredged. I want to be aware of sustaining the industry.”
Ending his third year in operation in Sag Harbor, McFarland has a new perspective, ideas and a recently-opened New York City location on his mind. This year, he had to roll up his sleeves and jump behind the line in the kitchen again to fill the gaping void left by the worker shortage in the industry. As the owner of the business, he has primarily focused on promoting his restaurants in recent years and navigating the ever-changing costs of the seafood industry.
“Most of the time, I am teaching our process, testing new recipes and running the operation,” says McFarland. “This summer, I very much got my hands involved and learned a lot about my business.”
He is no stranger to the kitchen. McFarland has worked in restaurants for three decades. As his love of the business grew, he decided to go for some formal training and attended the French Culinary Institute, leaving the school in 1995 and starting a new career phase.
“That is when I began my experiences in high-end dining,” says McFarland. But early on, he had his sights set on opening his own place one day and decided that he would focus on seafood.
“My last job working for someone else was at the Pearl Oyster Bar. That is where I became sure that I would start my own business,” he says.
McFarland began the process of raising capital for his venture. He put in his own money and took on two partners to open Ed’s Lobster Bar at 222 Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan. The restaurant was well-known and operated in that space until just one week ago when it officially moved to 155 Grand Street. He no longer has partners in his NYC location, having bought them out a few years ago.
Several factors precipitated the move. After failing to secure a decrease in his lease, which he sought due to the COVID pandemic and a massive loss of business, McFarland was unable to negotiate new terms with his landlord. After an amicable decision to separate from his landlord, he found a new home for Ed’s Lobster Bar, which is more suited to the current COVID-related restrictions on dining that have been imposed by New York City.
“We remained in business during the pandemic. We quickly switched over to a focus on takeout and then providing outdoor dining,” says McFarland. “It was not an easy process, but we survived.”
The new Grand Street location has additional outdoor seating, critical since city restaurants do not permit indoor dining without a customer providing proof of vaccination. In addition, the increase in outdoor dining provides unvaccinated diners the opportunity to come to the restaurant.
The new restrictions have put the industry in a challenging position, McFarland says. “We didn’t expect to have to police and enforce the city’s rules.”
Patrons are asked to provide their vaccination cards. There is no data collected, no checks performed. Despite the difficulty, McFarland understands he must abide by the regulations and makes sure his staff follows the rules of the letter.
However, the Sag Harbor location does not have the same restrictions and sees a lot more families dining than the New York City Ed’s Lobster Bar.
“It’s not just a table of Wall Street people dropping $5,000 on a meal. Families come to the restaurant in Sag Harbor much more often,” says McFarland.
One of the most difficult challenges has been the constant change in food and service costs throughout the pandemic. The entire supply chain has been impacted, and prices at his restaurants have been affected, as well.
“My restaurants aren’t cheap, but that is because the food prices have skyrocketed,” says McFarland. “We have seen lobster prices change from $6 to $7 per pound last year to $9 to $11 per pound this year. That is a tremendous increase.”
Customers do want to know why prices have increased, or perhaps portions have decreased. But, regardless of the cost, McFarland says he will never compromise the quality of his food.
McFarland likes to have a cocktail at the Corner Bar in Sag Harbor when he is out east. “A Ketel One Moscow Mule is my go-to cocktail,” he says. Hanging out in a local place like the Corner Bar has helped him meet many people and become known in the community. He also frequents Bell & Anchor on Noyac Road in Sag Harbor and La Hacienda in Southampton for tacos.
As the summer ends, Mcfarland says he has seen a difference in the number of people beginning to return to New York City. Last year, the East End remained vibrant after the summer season, but in 2021 it is starting to feel like the off-season again.
“New York City is improving, but it has a long way to go,” he says. “It is gradually picking up, but we are nowhere near where we once were.”
With the recent lift of travel bans, McFarland says the return of European tourists will be a game-changer. “They are the lifeblood of the industry, and until tourism returns, we will not see real improvement.”
But in the meantime, Ed’s Lobster Bar will remain a downtown and East End staple.
“I love the business, and we have a lot of pride in our restaurants,” says McFarland. “And while everyone is talking about ‘coming back,’ we never left.”
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.