Crab cakes enter `fast casual' area

Rosedale company known for QVC sales opens a restaurant at Hunt Valley center


The crab cake company that found stardom on the QVC cable television shopping channel now hopes to find similar success in the restaurant business.

Chesapeake Bay Gourmet, the 25-year-old Rosedale company that became a household name after debuting on QVC a decade ago, opened its first restaurant, Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes & More, last week in Hunt Valley.

In opening the restaurant, the first in what it hopes to become a chain, the company is entering a highly competitive market that includes large franchises such as Phillips Seafood Restaurants and dozens of mom-and-pop operations such as Obrycki's in Fells Point. Crab-cake sandwiches are like hamburgers in Maryland where more than 95 percent of sit-down restaurants have it on the menu, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

But Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes & More said it is distinguishing itself by introducing crab cakes to the "fast casual" arena, a popular restaurant concept like Panera Bread or Noodles & Company. The strategy employs the quick service of a fast food restaurant but the decor and food of a sit-down restaurant. Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes & More also wants to bring crab cakes to storefronts in shopping centers, a niche it says is largely untapped.

"We didn't want to compete with the sit-down dining restaurants," said Steve Cohen, president of Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes & More. "That's a very expensive concept to pull off. We wanted to create something we could franchise easily."

"It's not the bells and whistles of fine dining, but it has all the elements of a mom-and-pop restaurant," Cohen said.

The first location at Hunt Valley Towne Centre is a 1,500-square- foot restaurant with about a half-dozen tables. The menu includes a jumbo lump crab cake for $7.95, a crab cake sandwich for $6.95 and crab quiche for $6.95 as well as other seafood dishes.

Many of the menu items are the ones that became popular after being sold on QVC.

Margie and Ron Kauffman, two of the early owners of Chesapeake Bay Gourmet, first appeared on the shopping network after winning a competition to become one of 20 businesses chosen to pitch their crab cakes as part of a showcase of Maryland products. At the time the couple had never heard of QVC.

The crab cakes became one of QVC's best-selling food products and helped revive business at Chesapeake Bay Gourmet, which had seen a slowdown in sales. Before QVC, the company had sold seafood items primarily in grocery stores and wholesale clubs.

But the outlet that made the company a household name and quadrupled their business in 10 years, left little opportunity to fulfill other dreams the Kauffmans had for the business, such as opening restaurants. So two years ago they sold their business to Astral Foods. The Kauffmans are still involved in the company, in charge mostly of QVC sales and leading the Chesapeake Bay Gourmet brand. Astral Foods brought in Cohen to run the restaurant side of the business.

"QVC took up so much of our time," said Ron Kauffman. "One of the reasons that we sold the company was that we needed to get more capital to do some of the things that Margie and I couldn't do ourselves. We always talked about restaurants but never got the opportunity to do it."

The company plans to open three restaurants next year in Annapolis, Delaware and Northern Virginia and hopes to have a major East Coast presence in the next five years.

Retail experts said the "fast casual" restaurant business is a good one to enter now because it is largely untouched territory when it comes to seafood.

"It's a growing restaurant trend," said Noreen Eberly, director of seafood marketing and aquaculture development at the state Department of Agriculture. "There aren't too many restaurants like that that sell crab cakes. It could be a good niche for them."

Phillips announced last year that it was opening fast casual restaurants in airports and other heavy traffic areas. But not too many other seafood companies have entered the market because seafood is expensive and has a short shelf life, retail experts said.

"Is there competition? Sure," said Thomas H. Maddux, president of KLNB Retail in Towson. "Wegmans [grocery] sells crab cakes. Surely there are five other restaurants on York Road that you can get a takeout crab cake. But if I don't want to go to a sit-down seafood restaurant and have a full meal, and I don't want to go into a supermarket, then they're a good alternative."

The restaurant also features freezer cases where customers can pick up cases of crab cakes and other products. Before customers could only get the products on QVC, off the company's Web site or from a small retail operation at the company headquarters in Rosedale. Some products were sold in grocery stores.

"It's another outlet for us to be able to sell," Cohen said.

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