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Spotlight: Crab cakes

Processors reformulate crab cakes to suit customer needs

Casual and upscale crab cake menu mentions grew 21
    percent from 2006 to 2008. - Photo courtesy of Phillips Foods
By Lauren Kramer
May 01, 2009

Crab cakes mean different things to different people. For some, they are still defined by the classic Maryland style, a recipe that calls for crabmeat, mayonnaise, parsley, salt, breadcrumbs, eggs and butter, while for others, innovative formulas, textures and crabmeat varieties are key.

"Ask 100 different people what a crab cake is supposed to be and you'll get 100 different answers," says Howard Shaw Jr., director of sales and purchasing at Shaw's Southern Belle Frozen Foods in Jacksonville, Fla. "Today a crab cake can be anything you want it to be, and those in the culinary world are demanding more diversity in their ingredient usage."

The popularity of crab cakes has been on the rise at casual and fine-dining restaurants, according to statistics from Datassential. Between 2006 and 2008, crab cake penetration on appetizer menus grew 21.4 percent, with a 14.3 percent increase of crab cakes among entrées, according to the menu research firm based in Los Angeles.

As a testament to the popularity of crab cakes, they can be found on the menus of very diverse restaurants, usually fitted to suit the restaurant's flavor profile.

"They definitely have the ability to transcend a restaurant's core product profile," says Shaw. "They're one of the most popular items for appetizers and entrées on today's menus."

Even so, crab cakes have not been immune to the scuttling effects of the economic recession, and processors have noticed a drop in sales.

"We've seen a decline in usage of crab cakes," says Shaw. "The bulk of our business is in casual dining, and that's down double digits. But that's only because there's not as many people eating out right now."

For the 52 weeks ending Feb. 21, dollar sales of crab cake entrées at retail were down 7.6 percent, while volume was down 5.2 percent for the same period, according to Nielsen Co. data. To add insult to injury, a poor harvest season in Indonesia has largely impacted crabmeat prices (See April SFB Top Species, p. 32). Claw meat prices were 33 percent higher at the end of last year compared to the beginning. Backfin prices were up 15 percent, and it was only jumbo crabmeat that witnessed a fall in prices last year, with a 17 percent drop in the third quarter.

Sales have slowed at Phillips Foods, says Honey Konicoff, VP of marketing.

"[Crab cakes are] still in demand, but they're selling less," she says. "Still, one of the excellent things about crab cakes is that you can still menu them by switching to another line of cakes. Operators can shift to cakes in a different price category if they're faced with lowering prices."

The Baltimore company offers crab cakes at a variety of different price points to meet the needs of fast-casual, mid-scale, polished casual and upscale restaurants. Its crab cakes were reformulated in March to improve texture and cooking properties.

"The technology behind the new formulation delivers a lighter, fluffier cake that enhances cooking versatility and provides foodservice operators with longer holding times," says Dennis Gavagan, Phillips' R&D chef.

Of the four varieties available, Phillips' signature crab cakes, made with large lumps, backfin and special flake meat, are the most popular.

While restaurant demand for crab cakes has fluctuated in the recession, Shaw's company has experienced a huge rise in retail demand. So too has SeaPak Shrimp Co., which in December 2007 launched its Maryland-style crab cakes made with crabmeat, red peppers, green onions and a blend of spices. The crab cakes are available at national supermarket chains and Sam's Club and continue to perform well.

"They've become one of SeaPak's top 10 selling items," says Bryan Jaynes, company spokesperson. "Our customers are looking for high quality and delicious crab cakes that are tasty and easy to prepare in their homes."

In its 75th year, Shaw's Southern Belle considers itself the world's largest crab cakes producer, utilizing more than 200 recipes and constantly developing new flavor profiles in texture and color.

"Most customers have price points to meet, which dictates the amount of crabmeat that can be used," says Shaw. "But chefs today like to see their own flavor profiles be more prominent, so using less bread makes sense."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia 


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