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In early 2010, after a few press outlets reported on his new venture (honoring his underground business by not revealing the exact address), more customers showed up looking for him and his lobster rolls. And ultimately, so did city officials.
“The fire department said I had enough propane to blow up an entire city block -- I was using it to steam off lobster out my backyard,” he says. But Sargent wasn’t ready to go, and soon Klaw appeared, taking Sargent’s game to the street. Customers would call or text with an order, and Dr. Klaw, in full regalia and a hood obfuscating his face, would meet them outside for the handoff, charging $14 a roll.
Sargent says his entire customer base was built out of New Englanders who had transplanted to New York. “I still have all their contacts in my phone, like a drug dealer. It’s all 508 and 617. It’s all these die-hard lobster roll fans.”
By the summer of 2010, Sargent was selling, on average, 250 rolls each shift, and making so much money (roughly $5,000 a night, when you included tips), he no longer had to steam his own lobsters. He’d just tell his purveyors to send him the pickings -- pre-shelled meat, which can run up to $40/lb. “You’re paying top dollar, but they’d send you a block of meat. Shipped fresh -- it was so expensive.” One day he calculated $30,000 worth of lobster in his apartment (the average market price this summer is $5/lb), cooling inside three refrigerators (one full-size, two lowboys). “That was when I was like, ‘I am a drug dealer.’”
But it wasn’t just the crustacean-tainted cash flow that drew comparison to Sargent being a drug pusher. From the front stoop of his building, he points out the red wall with barbed wire where customers used to line up to wait for the goods, sometimes 20 deep. Every night, from sundown until four in the morning, when the bars would let out, he’d emerge and quickly make the transactions.
“It did look like fiending drug addicts trying to get hooked up,” he says of his lobster roll customers. “Too often, I’d have to tell people, if I don’t come out in five minutes, you have to keep walking around the block. The neighbors were really getting freaked out, and I basically had to explain to all [of them] that I was not dealing drugs.”
He recalls the time Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, and their son showed up in a Zipcar to pick up an order. And in a matter of time, so did the DOH. In the end, Sargent suspects he had been outed through Foursquare, the app that lets users discover places like restaurants and bars through their social network. Apparently, one customer wanted to be “the mayor” (i.e. the person that has checked in most to a location in the past 30 days) of Dr. Klaw’s Underground.
"I was like, dude, you just gave away my exact location."