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Consider the Lobster Zone: MN’s Last Functioning Seafood Claw Game for Sale

The odd barroom game was once a headline-making craze. Now it's reportedly down to one local location.

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The (likely) last Lobster Zone in Minnesota, seen here inside Anoka’s Wheelhouse Bar.

When I first saw a Lobster Zone, the live-lobster claw game pinched something deep inside my temporal lobe. This was about 12 years ago at Dinkytown's Burrito Loco, and I'm not exaggerating when I tell you I've never stopped thinking about it.

Conceptually, the game—$2 per try to snatch live lobsters with a plastic claw; human winners then get the losing lobsters cooked up—is a bizarro fusion of barroom entertainment, roundabout eating, and questionable ethics. Even its name and signage recalls Stephen King's The Dead Zone.

Lobster Zone cabinets began surfacing inside Twin Cities bars throughout the early '10s, with such frequency that Minnesota Public Radio published a trend piece that quotes the Minnesota distributor, Cliff Hentz, plus players, St. Paul regulators, and a damn zoologist from the University of Hawaii. In recent years the Florida-based company that created Lobster Zone appears to have folded, and its namesake product has all but vanished from local taverns.

So you can imagine my surprise when "lobster zone machine skill crane: $4,000" appeared across my Facebook Marketplace feed.

Tony Hanson, owner of Anoka's Wheelhouse Bar, first experienced Lobster Zone at the Showboat Saloon while passing through Wisconsin Dells around a decade ago. "I thought: 'This is really cool!'" he says today. He acquired the one currently on Facebook Marketplace two years ago from Hentz for around $4,000, the same price he's now selling it for now. (Back in the heyday of Lobster Zone, Hentz told MPR that new cabinets would run you "the cost of a new car.")

Hanson believes he owns the last two Lobster Zones in Minnesota. (The other one rests, lobster-like, at his home garage.)

"My daughters said they'd take care of it, do the cleaning, to help pay for their college fund," Hanson says, estimating that roughly 100 Wheelhouse Bar patrons have won lobster dinners. "Customer have always loved it. It used to be a bigger money-maker, but the price of lobster keeps going up—they're $30 each, and you used to get those same lobsters for $10."

Upon seeing Lobster Zone for the first time earlier this week, a peer of mine at the Star Tribune referred to it as an "evil game." PETA, circa 2008, felt the same way. But Hanson doesn't harbor any lobster welfare concerns. "Their fate was sealed the minute they were caught in the ocean," he says. The sea life expert who spoke with MPR more or less agreed, saying "the claw thing wouldn't be much different" than the live tank at a Red Lobster.

Hanson feels his Lobster Zone could thrive in a new location, where a fresh cast of regulars could try their luck at clawing clawed crustaceans while guzzling White Claws. A media feeding frenzy is starting to grow: KSTP's Twin Cities Live crew visited the Wheelhouse last month with lobsters on their minds.

"I get a message every week from someone saying, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever seen,'" Hanson says, adding that perhaps his Lobster Zone is destined for a bar closer to the heart of the metro. "Me being a bar owner, instead of a lobster operator, it's not really right for me to boost the business of an [Anoka area] competitor by selling it to them."

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