Firm developing chain of fast-crab restaurants CHESAPEAKE SOFT-SELL IN TOKYO

October 05, 1990|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

TOKYO -- Sandwiched between restaurants that sell tempura, sushi and sake one can find a little bit of Maryland in this Japanese city.

Just outside downtown Tokyo, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs on a bun are sold for 550 and 650 yen respectively, about $4 and $5.

The delicacies that most Marylanders take for granted are being sold by Taiyo Oil Co. Ltd.

In 1988 Taiyo, a 500-employee Japanese company that imports, refines and markets oil products, created a food division and in an effort to expand its food enterprises bought The John T. Handy Co. Inc. on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

The 87-year-old Crisfield company is the world's largest processor of soft-shell crabs and employs about 200 workers from May to September, during soft-shell season.

Even before being bought by Taiyo, Handy had begun cultivating the Tokyo market, where only hard-shell crabs were common.

"In the case of Japan, we enjoy the meat of crab but that does not include the shell," says Shiro Shimizu, managing director of Taiyo's food division. "That is why Handy is quite unique. We wish to introduce this new type of dish into Japan."

Across the street from the Kichijoji train station is a tiny yellow-brick building where crab burgers, as they are called, can be bought in the first of what Taiyo hopes will be a chain of Handy Dandy Maryland soft-shell crab restaurants.

There's no place to sit at Handy Dandy and just enough room for about half a dozen customers to squeeze in. Etched on the restaurant's mirror is the gun-shaped outline of the state of Maryland.

At Handy Dandy customers can buy the restaurant's specialties -- soft-shell crabs by the dozen or crab cakes made with 70 percent blue crab meat.

Although Taiyo's food division dates only to 1988, the food business is not new to this 82-year-old private Japanese company. It has managed a fish market since 1943. In 1983 the company began to raise flounder by using the warm waste water from its refinery. Both facilities are in Japan's Ehime prefecture, where the company's refinery is located.

Shimizu said it was Handy's 75-percent share of the American soft-shell crab market in 1988 that caught the attention of his company, which is headquartered in Tokyo.

Shimizu said he didn't even know where the Eastern shore firm was located or, for that matter, where Maryland was located in the U.S.

"Taiyo Oil has continuously been showing a profit for the last 14 years and is always looking for some good investments, especially in the food business," Shimizu said.

Within three months of first contacting Handy, the purchase was completed and it became a Taiyo subsidiary -- a rather quick deal by Japanese standards.

"We understood that the company's financial position was very good and we could not find any kind of problem which disturbed our investment," Shimizu said. "Their products were unique and popular in your country and we thought the products could be sold in Japanese market."

Shimizu would not disclose how much Taiyo paid for Handy. In its annual report, Taiyo reported it had 239 million yen or about $1.7 million in annual sales last year.

Yoji Koyama, deputy manager of Taiyo's food division, said Handy Dandy, which opened a year ago, has sold about 1,000 dozen soft crabs. Last year, the company sold 88,000 dozen crabs in Japan and 120,000 dozen the year before.

But Shimizu said the company is not interested in short-term profits.

"If they are successful and make a profit from their operation, we will reinvest those profits in the company," he said.

It's important to Taiyo that Handy remain an American company, especially at a time when there is so much anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, he said.

"Handy is an American company with American management so they have autonomy," Shimizu said. "They send a business plan and monthly reports. We put the business activity in their hands."

There are no Japanese employees at the Eastern Shore seafood company, Shimizu said.

Carol A. Haltaman, who in 1988 was vice president of the Crisfield company, was named president after the purchase. When the Japanese first offered to buy the company, she said she had mixed feelings.

"I'm an American," she said. "I had heard about the Japanese buying companies in this country and I wondered if all of this was good for our country."

In the two years under Japanese operations, her fears have been alleviated. "So far, this has been very pleasant," she said. "It might be better than if an American company had bought it. If another seafood company had bought us, they might have come in and wanted to change things."

The Japanese have made only a few changes, such as introducing color-coded labels on the packaging and reducing cases from 50 pounds to 25 pounds.

Ha Fresh soft-shell crabs are shipped from May through September throughout the U.S. and overseas. Frozen soft crabs are available year round.

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