Bay crabs sold online: a delicious idea, indeed

Enabling the world to click and pick

March 04, 2001|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Christina and Tim Kennedy craved just one delicacy while preparing to watch Baltimore play in the Super Bowl: Maryland blue crabs.

But since the former residents of Northern Virginia couldn't haul any out of Puget Sound in Washington state, where they now live, they switched on their home computer, clicked on a Web site from Crisfield on the Eastern Shore and ordered a couple of dozen medium-size crabs. The package was on their doorstep the next morning.

"It was pretty cool," said Christina Kennedy, 30. "It made watching the Ravens win the Super Bowl that much better."

One of the oldest forms of commerce in Maryland - crabbing - is coming to discover one of the newest - the Internet.

From classic crab houses, where patrons have dined with newsprint tablecloths and wood mallets for generations, to high-tech mail-order operations, the Internet is providing a global market for the state's best-known regional product. A few entrepreneurs report huge gains in sales and visibility, although the phenomenon is limited.

Indeed, many crab dealers acknowledge they're as mystified about how to expand their business in cyberspace as their new customers are about how to eat a crab. Of 60 crab houses the Restaurant Association of Maryland lists, only one-third offered Web sites; most were solely informational, listing menus or directions. Some dealers say that offering a perishable product long-distance whose price, quantity and quality is ever-changing is too cumbersome by computer.

"We've approached the industry about the Internet, and they haven't been particularly warm to the idea," said Noreen Eberly of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Office of Seafood Marketing.

But there are success stories.

Greg Cain was working in the computer field on the Eastern Shore six years ago. He wondered about starting a business on the Internet, then a decades-old academic computer network that was just beginning to explode in popularity for commercial use.

"Then it hit me. Crisfield is the crab capital of the world," said Cain, 30. "With the Internet, you're looking at a national, even international market."

What began as a low-grade Web site to ship crabs he would buy from his neighborhood watermen has evolved into "The Crab Place," a dot-com business that did $260,000 in sales last year. Cain expects to double that revenue this year. About 125,000 "hits" - the number of times customers looked at the Web site - generated nearly 1,600 orders last year averaging $165 each, he said. Seven employees work full time for Crabplace.com and a related computer business.

His brother, Matt, 26, said their clientele generally has enough disposable income so they aren't turned off by the cost of shipping. The Cains, thinking it would be better to inform customers upfront, list a wide range of packing charges on the site so shoppers can calculate the total bill before they pursue an order. Shipping for a dozen large crabs, for example, is $29, nearly the price of the crabs themselves.

Improvements in overnight delivery continue to help the business grow. After next-day ground delivery became available last year, Crabplace.com began offering it for free to customers from New York to the Carolinas.

The Cains now use custom-designed Styrofoam packaging and "gel packs" to keep crabs cold - less messy than the ice chips and cardboard boxes they used at first. They plan to increase their advertising budget this year to $30,000. With it, they intend to rent a billboard on one of the busy highways around Ocean City, figuring they can hook vacationers who may have fallen in love with the taste of crab, of which James Michener wrote "no man or woman ever ate enough." They also hope to cut deals with condominium associations, gaining access to coveted e-mail lists of members in exchange for a good deal on computer maintenance, another business they operate.

Their customers are often transplanted Marylanders or folks who enjoyed eating crabs on a trip to Baltimore and crave more. Increasingly, even Crisfielders who don't have to go far to find a crab are mail-ordering products to distant relatives at Christmas, the Cains said.

Nationally, food industry observers say use of the Internet is starting to gain steam, especially for sellers of hard-to-find specialty foods or those who already have name recognition. The famed Fulton Fish Market in New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shopped to pay off his Super Bowl bet to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, recently launched a Web site, for example. When the National Restaurant Association last polled its members in 1999, nearly 60 percent of higher-end restaurants, with average tabs of $15 or more, had Web sites. Few at the time allowed customers to order online, but that's changing.

"It's just like selling product over a counter. It's just a new type of counter," said Larry Himelfarb, who watches technology trends for the Washington, D.C.-based restaurant trade group.

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