Sales had stalled and Margie and Ron Kauffman considered abandoning the family crab cake business in Dundalk.
Then crab cakes met television shopping.
The 24-year-old Chesapeake Bay Gourmet recently rung up its 50 millionth crab cake. But about 20 million of them were sold on QVC, the television shopping network.
FOR THE RECORD - A Business article yesterday incorrectly stated the location of Chesapeake Bay Gourmet and M&I Seafood. The headquarters is in Rosedale.
The Sun regrets the error.
A seven-minute appearance by the Kauffmans hawking their crab cakes on QVC in 1995 helped rejuvenate their business, M&I Seafood. Annual sales of their Chesapeake Bay Gourmet brand have increased fivefold to $15 million from $3 million since that first TV show, and staffing has increased to more than 100 from 20.
"It really turned us upside down," Ron Kauffman said of the 24-hour shopping channel that reaches 86 million homes a year. "We would have never been able to reach so many people any other way."
The crab cake has also been a boon for QVC, which nearly a decade later counts it as one of its top-selling food items. QVC, which moved $5.4 billion in products last year, collects a percentage of sales from its participating vendors. Liberty Media Corp. bought the channel last year from Comcast Corp.
"Only the best vendors with high-quality product can sell a consumable for nine years and continue to grow," said Ken O'Brien, QVC's director of home merchandising.
That the couple, who live on Kent Island, ever appeared on QVC was a fluke. The Kauffmans hadn't heard of the channel when state economic development officials invited them and a few hundred other companies to compete to have their products sold on QVC.
They were one of 20 businesses that were chosen for the trip to QVC studios in suburban Philadelphia. As part of a showcase of Maryland products, the Kauffmans were given 10 minutes to pitch their crab cakes on TV.
The day of the live broadcast, the Kauffmans' intention was to follow the lead of the companies before them. That plan crumbled, however, and they were asked to go first. They stumbled through that appearance, but were startled by the result: They sold out their 24,000 crab cakes in seven minutes - more than they had ever sold at one time.
Phillips Foods Inc., among the best-known Maryland seafood companies, tried selling on the Home Shopping Network, a QVC competitor, five years ago, but didn't match the success of its restaurants or name-brand grocery products. The extensive packaging needed to send fresh seafood across the country also proved to be a deterrent.
"Our biggest hurdle was that we weren't equipped to send out the packages," said Honey Konicoff, Phillips vice president of marketing. "We used a third party to do it and there were too many people involved to be a huge money maker."
Margie Kauffman's brother, Les Isennock, with the help of his wife, Linda, concocted Chesapeake Bay Gourmet's crab cake recipe and started the business out of a garage in 1980. The Kauffmans came on board a few years later. The Issenocks eventually left the business.
The cakes are made from back-fin crabmeat with just enough filler to hold them together. The cakes also have some secret ingredients that the family won't reveal. The crabmeat comes from picking houses throughout Maryland and as far away as China and Vietnam. The crab cakes are made by hand at the company's plant on Kelso Drive in Dundalk and then flash-frozen and shipped in insulated containers with dry ice.
One day this week, workers in paper hats and aprons and bundled in sweat shirts worked in what was essentially a room-size refrigerator, folding crab meat into cakes and packing them in boxes.
Before QVC, Chesapeake Bay Gourmet sold packaged crab cakes and other seafood to grocery stores and wholesale clubs, but didn't see much room for growth. QVC gave it the opportunity to tap the retail market.
The Kauffmans say the success of their TV debut required a short learning curve. It took the company three days to figure out how to package and ship that first retail order. Without adequate machinery, they initially had to tape every box by hand. Now, the company can package and ship 2,000 crab cakes in 45 minutes.
The couple has created dozens of other products to sell on QVC, including "crabby cheesy" pretzels, seafood spring rolls, crab quiche and crab and scallop cakes. Margie Kauffman comes up with the creations in a kitchen at the Dundalk facility that looks like it could belong in her home. Her employees are her taste testers.
"A lot of recipes you see are made in the kitchen and eaten by my friends and family first," she said.
The Kauffmans have discovered throughout the years that whatever passes the friend and family test isn't always what the viewers want. A crab cake with ham that the Kauffmans created after tasting something similar in Virginia, and a hit with tasters at the plant, was abandoned after viewers didn't take to it.
The 2-ounce crab cake (16 for $36) remains their best seller on QVC and is one of the channel's best-selling food items. Chesapeake Bay Gourmet remains the sole crab cake vendor on QVC.
"They're unique," said Noreen Eberly, director of Maryland's agriculture development and seafood marketing program. "Some people sell in food magazines, but being on QVC is unique."
On Monday, the company will appear on QVC in three half-hour segments to celebrate its anniversary on the show. The Kauffmans will introduce some new products, including shrimp and lobster dip.
They don't rehearse before their appearances. They take a few minutes to describe the products to the customers and then take calls from viewers.
The couple want to expand their catalog business and sell more to groceries. They recently began selling on a shopping network in Canada. The company also sell products on a Web site, www.cbgourmet.com, and at a small retail outlet at the plant.
"We always want to stay in touch with the trends," Kauffman said. "But that doesn't mean we don't think the best crab cakes are the old-fashioned kind like my grandmother used to make in her black skillet."