A new arcade game is popping up in Twin Cities bars, but the prize isn't a teddy bear or fuzzy dice. It's a live lobster.
If you're familiar with the claw cranes in some bowling alleys, you know how they work: put some loose change in the machine, and using a hand-operated claw, try to pluck out a prize. If you catch one, it's yours.
The Lobster Zone has been on display at Shamrocks Grill and Pub in St. Paul for more than two months. It looks like a large vending machine, only the top half is a glass tank filled with saltwater. Inside, eight lobsters are clustered in the corners of the tank, beneath an ominous plastic claw. If you're lucky, one of them could be dinner.
It only costs $2 to play, but this game is addictive, as Mosay Ly recently learned. Two dollars can turn into $20 pretty fast, with the help of some beer and a gaggle of friends cheering you on.
"I could have bought a lobster from a store. It's like a casino," Ly said.
The group's quest to catch one of the elusive critters proves more challenging than it looks. Every time the claw comes down, the lobster jets backward and out of its reach.
If a customer catches a lobster, the kitchen staff will cook it and present it on a platter with broccoli and bread. As far as gimmicks go, Shamrocks' co-owner Michael Runyon said the Lobster Zone is brilliant.
"With this whole social media now, Facebook and all that, people take a picture next to it and say, 'God, you gotta come down here,' 'I wish you here,' 'I just won a lobster,' or 'Guess who's eating good tonight?'" Runyon said. "There's a lot of cute taglines that can be associated with the whole thing."
The game has spawned numerous videos on YouTube of players who successfully ensnared their lobster dinners.
But it's not for everyone. Justin Robertson came into Shamrocks for a beer, and found himself staring at the crustaceans.
"Not really something I would do. Kind of inhumane, I guess," Robertson said. "They're living things, and it's turning them into a sport. It's not really like fishing. They don't have a sporting chance. I mean, I know they're probably going to get eaten regardless."
The game is perfectly legal, but has spurred protests in other states from animal-rights activists. In Long Beach, California, a group criticized how the lobsters were "subjected to the constant, threatening menace of a huge claw."
Cliff Hentz, the Twin Cities distributor of the Florida-based Lobster Zone, owns four machines in the Twin Cities. He has the one at Shamrocks and one at Tiffany Sports Lounge, another St. Paul bar, and two more that will go online in at Burrito Loco in Minneapolis and at the Cherry Pit in St. Paul.
"It's a game of chance," Hentz said. "For two bucks, you get to win yourself a lobster. Sometimes it's in the customer's favor. Sometimes it's in my favor."
Hentz said the treatment of his animals is no different than of the ones at Red Lobster. Every week, he changes the tank's filters, checks on the salinity of the water, and replenishes the tank with new lobsters he buys from Coastal Seafoods. The lobsters have giant rubber bands on their claws, to prevent these pugnacious animals from attacking one another.
The lobsters don't need to be fed because they can live for months off of stored energy.
But not every distributor is this attentive. Hentz said the Lobster Zone that he first played in Wisconsin Dells more than a year ago is now filthy.
"I feel ashamed of the way it's kept down there, but it's the way that person operates it," he said.
Hentz pays the city of St. Paul $17 for an annual license to operate each machine. It's the same kind of license issued for pinball machines.
So far, Hentz said business has been lucrative. He splits 25 percent of the revenue with the bars. But Hentz declined to say how much he's making, or how much he spent on the devices.
"They're not cheap. They're the cost of a new car, so there's a definite investment," Hentz said.
St. Paul officials say they haven't received any complaints about the game so far. But is it true, as some animal-rights groups have argued, that lobsters sitting under a foreboding claw can experience fear?
"Well, probably not the same way we do, but they do have defensive actions, for sure," said zoology professor Les Watling of the University of Hawaii. Watling has been studying crustaceans his entire career.
Watling said there's no doubt the Lobster Zone animals are stressed while living in such close quarters with one another. But he said that's also true of lobsters you'd find at a restaurant.
"Normally, if you go to a restaurant and order a lobster, the chef or the cook comes out and puts her hand down in the tank and pulls the lobster out," Watling said. "The lobsters move around because they don't know what's going on. So I think the claw thing wouldn't be much different than that."
Watling said the claw game seems to be just another way to pull a lobster out of a tank. But he said the game seems a bit disingenuous. If you want to make a sport out of catching a live lobster, he said, remove the rubber bands from its claws and let it defend itself. Then see who wins this game.