Erin Bocklermann doesn't even like lobster. But the tank of squirming, crawling crustaceans was just too much to resist.
She walked up with a group of friends and pulled out three $1 bills. But first, the strategy.
"That guy there?" her friend pointed and asked.
"I don't know, he looks pretty ferocious," Bocklermann said, scanning the tank as her friends craned their necks to survey the quarry.
The one here in the back?
"He looks kind of pudgy. You might be able to get him," her friend said.
The hunt was on.
She fed $3 into the machine near the entrance of Remy's bar on Hilton Head Island. Like some terrible, vengeful hand, a metal claw descended from the sky straight for the beast. It closed between the creature's claw and body and ascended. But even with its pincers restrained by rubber bands, the lobster wriggled free and splashed back down.
"That was like my intern salary for an hour," Bocklermann said, disheartened.
Ladies and gentlefish: Meet the Lobster Game, the newest craze that's been sweeping bars in Bluffton and Hilton Head over the past few months. The game works the same as every other prize crane game on the boardwalk: You drop money in, use a joystick to line up the metal claw and press the red "drop" button. Then you cuss as the metal arms fail to hold onto the stuffed off-brand Winnie the Pooh or Big Bird.
Replace those stuffed novelties with live lobsters in a temperature-controlled tank and the machine goes from cute amusement to late-night obsession for bar-goers -- and cash cow for owners.
"People seem to enjoy the hell out of it," said Roy Prescott, owner of Remy's, which installed the game this month. "It's been getting a good bit of play."
If your $3 turn is successful, the restaurants usually will cook the lobster at no charge. Or you can take it home to cook, or make it a pet or whatever you like.
The game has been around for more than a decade. Most accounts trace its origins to Florida. It was sighted in Myrtle Beach in 1998, but only arrived in this area in February, when Rob Greig's company, Bluewater
Vending, began pitching the idea to restaurants and bars.The machine's Web site (www.lobstergame.com) says bar owners average a $1,000 per week profit.
"It's just something that nobody was doing in the area," said Greig, who's seen the machines from Cleveland to Alaska. "It's the thrill of the catch is what I saw."
The businesses took the bait, so to speak, and their customers loved the opportunity to win a cheap lobster dinner.
Greig has installed five machines so far on the island and in Bluffton, including Aunt Chilada's Easy Street Cafe, Kelly's Tavern and Station 70, with plans to install one at Vic's Tavern.
At least once every night, someone snags a lobster, said Sarah Robinson, a hostess at Station 70. People in the bar scream and go nuts when a lobster drops down the prize chute, she said.
"It's really, really popular," she said.
Greig visits the machines every day to restock and clean the tanks.
He feeds the lobsters brine and keeps 12 in the machines at a time. The lobsters come from a distributor in Cape Coral, Fla., he said.
Late at night, when drinks are flowing, customers line up at the machines with the steely determination of Ahab tracking the white whale, bar owners said. People will dump $20, $30 or more at a time into the game. Unlike in the arcade versions kids play, some of the lobster machines accept $50 and $100 bills.
Jock's Sports Grill in Bluffton had the crustacean contraption for about two months, until its regular clientele figured out how to beat the machine. They were emptying the tank each day in four or five hours, bartender Kari Vitaro said.
"At first we were making a killing," she said. Then people started pulling out three lobsters at a time, so the bar got rid of it.
The claw game has drawn criticism nationally from animal rights groups, who say clutching at a creature over and over again with a metal claw is cruel.
But Greig said the machine is the same as in a seafood market where lobsters are hoisted out of a tank.
"If they weren't in that tank, they'd already be in somebody's belly," he said. "You go out and hook a fish through the mouth and drag it through the water. I don't see it being any different."
Neither, at least, do the hordes of customers.
To test the odds of winning, two Island Packet reporters on Thursday spent about two hours and $40 between them at Remy's trying to hook a lobster. In the end, reporter Daniel Brownstein hooked a small, docile specimen by catching it around the claws and head. Lobsters retail for about $30 at Hudson's On the Docks seafood restaurant, so was it really worth it?
It's all about the thrill of the catch, Brownstein said, dipping parts of his prize in melted butter.