Crab houses (or crab and seafood restaurants) are a fixture of many United States waterfronts, as well as inland locations. Initially intended to serve as an additional venue for selling fishermens’ daily catches, crab houses provide an opportunity to enjoy fresh seafood in a comfortable setting.
Starting a crab house business can be challenging, but there is good potential for success. This is the case for Phillips Seafood Restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland, which has been in existence since 1956. Phillips began as a simple carryout restaurant and today has ten locations, as well as a nationwide seafood shipping service. (See References 1)
Set up your basic business structure. To choose your business framework, meet with a Certified Public Accountant with restaurant experience. Contact a commercial insurance agent to determine insurance needs for your business, staff, and customers. Visit your city or county clerk’s office to apply for a business license. Finally, meet with local health department officials to learn about food and sanitation requirements for your crab house.
Choose a customer-friendly location. Research appropriate waterfront buildings with deepwater dockage for visiting boaters or sufficient water depth for dock installation. In many waterfront towns, the “dock and dine” experience is a welcome part of a boating trip. Whether customers are traveling on a small skiff or large yacht, they will likely enjoy this crab house feature.
For customers arriving by land, select a location with at least two entrance and exit driveways, and with easy access to a main road. Ensure that you have plenty of onsite and overflow parking available. Finally, consider seafood-related signage and displays to reflect your crab house’s character.
Confirm your supply sources. Since the restaurant business involves serving on-demand menu items, ensure that you have a supply of fresh raw ingredients at all times. Conventional food service companies are equipped to provide most other food and restaurant supply items (See Resources).
You will need to contract with local seafood suppliers for your crabs, fish, and shellfish. Freshness and spoilage are major concerns, as is having enough seafood on hand to serve an unpredictable number of customers. Choose suppliers with a strong local distribution network. If you’re opening your restaurant in a fishing community, you may be lucky enough to receive deliveries straight from the fishermen themselves.
Choose your menu and decor. Similar menus exist in many crab houses. Along with the always popular steamed crabs (with the messy but memorable pick-and-eat experience), diners usually find crabmeat prepared in soups, casseroles, and alongside other seafoods or meats. Your menu may also feature local or regional entrees and freshly prepared side dishes and desserts.
In many crab houses, a casual décor is paired with the informal menu. Simple and sturdy tables and chairs, nautical prints and memorabilia, and photographs of celebrities who have been customers are commonly seen.
Select seafood-savvy staff. Hire experienced chefs and kitchen support staff, and servers who can handle multiple customers with a pleasant, efficient demeanor. Finally, select hosts or hostesses with an outgoing nature and strong organizational skills.
Conduct some pre-opening customer service training, with your manager taking on the role of a potentially difficult customer. Finally, don’t forget to include a team building event with some rewards.
Open your doors to diners. Schedule a grand opening with a crab theme: (1) Offer special prices on all crab entrees; (2) Hire an animated “crab mascot” for the children; (3) Hold door prize drawings for a dozen steamed crabs; and (4) Introduce a Crabby Customer Card with a free entrée after a number of paid visits.
Advertise your grand opening in local newspapers, community publications, and on local radio stations. To attract the boating crowd, place flyers in marine supply stores and marinas. Finally, look into developing an online social media presence to attract new customers.
Based in North Carolina, Felicia Greene has written professionally since 1986. Greene edited sailing-related newsletters and designed marketing programs for the New Bern, N.C. "Sun Journal" and New Bern Habitat ReStore. She earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Baltimore.