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Species Focus: King Crab

As landings rise and prices drop, more consumers discover the "wow" crustacean

By Rick Ramseyer
February 01, 2006

Mark Palicki, the general manager and divisional buyer for Shaw’s Crab House, knows that one of the reasons customers like king crab — aside from its sweet, succulent taste — is the wow factor.

“You crack open a leg, and there’s a huge piece of meat in there,” Palicki says. “You don’t have to fight with it to get a little teeny piece.”

Shaw’s serves red king crab — the largest species, which can reach 6 feet from leg tip to leg tip and weigh 4 to 10 pounds — and buys 50,000 to 60,000 pounds annually for the two locations in the Chicago area.

Late last year, Shaw’s was offering 18 ounces of king crab legs for $44.95 and pairing crab with filet mignon for $51.95 and with Australian lobster tail for $52.95. “And we use it for sushi,” Palicki says.

King crab has long been a staple in restaurants, specialty stores and select supermarkets coast to coast. And with a sharp increase in imports from Russia, plus a new management system in Alaska that includes a higher allowable catch, industry representatives are hoping that more crab and lower prices will spur more consumers to find out what all the fuss is about.

“King crab is extremely affordable right now,” says Christian Limberg, national sales manager for Harbor Seafood in New Hyde Park, N.Y., which sources frozen red kings from Alaska, Russia and Norway, as well as lesser amounts of blue and brown (also known as golden) kings.

In mid-December, Urner Barry listed prices for red king crab legs and claws at up to $10.25 for 6-9s, $9.60 for 9-12s, $9.35 for 12-14s, $8.50 for 14-17s, $7.50 for 16-20s, $6.50 for 20-24s and $5.85 for 20s-and-up.

That compares with mid-October prices of up to $11.75 for 6-9s, $11.25 for 9-12s, $10.25 for 12-14s, $8.95 for 14-17s, $7.90 for 16-20s, $7.25 for 20-24s and $6.40 for 20s-and-up.
“This is a good chance to get king crab in everybody’s hands,” Limberg says. “You might be the guy who wants to feature it as the special for $9.99. Or you might be the guy who wants to say, ‘I’ve got the big legs.’”

King crabs are caught in large, wire-mesh traps off the shores of Southeast Alaska and in the Bering Sea. Red (Paralithodes camtschaticus) is the most common species and, given its size, is generally considered more marketable than the blue (P. platypus) or brown (Lithodes aequspina) varieties.

The vast majority of the world’s supply of king crab comes from Alaska and from Russia, which is the No. 1 exporter to the United States. From January through October 2005, imports from Russia tallied 26.6 million pounds — more than double 2004’s total — according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Alaska’s contribution is increasing as well. The 2005 Bristol Bay quota for red kings was 18.3 million pounds, up from 15.4 million pounds in 2004, with much of that product destined for Japan.

The Alaska harvest is now managed under an IFQ (individual fishing quota) system to enhance safety and
efficiency. The 2005 season, which got under way Oct. 15 and concluded last month, allowed fishermen to catch their crab throughout that window. In contrast, under the traditional derby-style format the previous year, the fishery lasted just three days.

Leading seafood chains are taking advantage of the more-abundant landings.

Red Lobster, a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants in Orlando, Fla., typically offers king crab legs as a 1/2-pound side item for $8.99 and as a 1 1/2-pound entrée for $26.99.

“Since the catch this year was favorable, we are looking at different ways to expand our usage of king crab,” a Red Lobster spokesperson stated via e-mail.

For fiscal 2005, the 670-plus-unit chain — which sources from Alaska and Russia — incorporated king crab legs in three of its five promotions, including the Big Seafood Festival and Create Your Own Holiday Feast.

Landry’s Restaurants in Houston, meanwhile, buys roughly 750,000 pounds of Russian red kings per year for its various concepts, ranging from Joe’s Crab Shack and Landry’s Seafood House to Charley’s Crab and Chart House.

“The poundage we use is constantly growing, because we’re [adding locations] all the time,” says Kathy Ruiz, VP of culinary operations.

Fresh approach

Among the seafood companies benefiting from changes to the Bristol Bay harvest is the Crab Broker in Las Vegas, a major provider of never-frozen kings to high-end restaurants and specialty markets.

“Alaska’s crab rationalization has stretched the season out; we now have fresh cooked king crab for 10 weeks instead of three weeks,” says Rob George, owner and president. “And it allows us to be very consistent delivering product to customers so they can build programs.”

The Crab Broker, with annual sales of $8 million to $9 million — of which 40 percent stems from kings — sold nearly 150,000 pounds of fresh clusters in 2005 for around $14 to $15 a pound.

“It’s so sweet and succulent, people are just blown away,” says George, noting that the company’s crab is processed by UniSea in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

“It’s cooked and delivered to the customer within 36 hours,” George adds.

The Crab Broker also handles red kings from Alaska’s Norton Sound summertime fishery, as well as approximately 40,000 pounds of fresh cooked browns per year.

Still, the Crab Broker sells about 300,000 pounds of frozen red king clusters to meet year-round demand. (Most king crab sold in the U.S. market, in fact, has been cooked and brine frozen.)

Bob Chinn’s Crab House in Chicago, one of the nation’s top-grossing independent restaurants, “buys probably 75 percent of its frozen red king crab from me,” George says. “They move probably 3,000 pounds to 4,000 pounds of frozen a week. And when fresh is on, it’s 4,000 pounds to 5,000 pounds.”

Rustic Inn Crabhouse, a landmark eatery in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also features fresh cooked red kings from Alaska in season and frozen product the rest of the year. A baked 2 1/2-pound cluster — touted as Colossal King Crab — goes for $68.

“It’s pricy, but it’s flying out of here,” says Michael Diascro, general manager and president of Rustic Inn, which annually uses around 13,000 pounds of red kings, including 1,000 pounds that is fresh cooked.

Truluck’s, a concept in Austin, Texas, specializing in steak, seafood and crab, focuses on fresh cooked king crab, according to David Tripoli, operating partner.

Truluck’s buys close to 300,000 pounds a year of red kings and has it on the menu for $42.95, served with asparagus and Parmesan mashed potatoes.

Live king crab is in the mix as well. King’s Seafood Co. in Costa Mesa, Calif., which owns a half-dozen King’s Fish House restaurants and several fine-dining places, boasts live reds for about $30 a pound at its white-tablecloth Water Grill in Los Angeles.

“We probably do 100 or 120 [live] animals a year, straight out of the tank,” says Matt Stein, King’s managing partner and chief seafood officer.

But the bulk of the company’s king crab sales are frozen reds from Russia and Alaska.

“We’ve offered king crab for the last 20 years,” Stein says. “It’s one of those [foods] people have an emotional response to.”

Retail kings

King crab is nothing new at retail, of course, albeit never-frozen product appears to be making inroads.

Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, has had success with fresh Alaska red king crab legs at its three locations, where late last year clusters were priced at $24.99 per pound.

“In December it’s my No. 1 dollar item,” says Jack Gridley, meat and seafood director.

“Probably 95 percent of what I will sell this year has been fresh — it’s a huge amount,” Gridley adds. “And that market will continue to grow.”

Despite the buzz surrounding fresh cooked product, frozen king crabs remain the year-round sales champs.

Piazza’s Fine Foods, for instance, with stores in Palo Alto and San Mateo, Calif., offers frozen Alaska red king crab legs throughout the year, priced in December at $14.99 a pound.

“It seems to be a holiday item, and maybe a month or two during the summer,” says Ed Paoli, Palo Alto’s assistant manager. Supermarkets, too, continue to promote king crab. Hy-Vee, with more than 220 stores in seven Midwestern states, listed Alaska king crab legs for $9.97 a pound from Dec. 14 to 27 as a weekly special.

Kings also are available in many locations of the 69-unit Wegmans Food Markets in the Northeast. And Sam’s Club, the nation’s largest members-only warehouse chain, had 5 pounds of frozen jumbo king crab legs and claws going for $69.66 on the Internet.

Ed’s Kasilof Seafoods in Alaska, which has a retail store, a wholesale department and a Web site, was selling red kings at retail in late 2005 for $19.95 to $24.95 per pound. (In December, a 5-pound box of jumbo crab legs, available online, was $124.95.)

“We’re mainly a salmon company, but red king crab has become more significant,” says Jeff Trujillo, vice president, adding that sales are up at least 15 percent.

“Its size makes king crab a novelty,” Trujillo says. “And it’s a good value in terms of full shells.”

Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland, Maine


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