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Product Spotlight: Crab cakes

This versatile product transcends menu categories

By April Forristall
February 01, 2007

It's no wonder crab cakes have become one of the fastest-growing menu items in recent years. The product is a very popular restaurant appetizer and its sales performance ranks up with shrimp.

Contributing to the product's popularity is its recipe versatility. Chefs and product manufacturers can manipulate virtually everything about them, from the type and grade of crabmeat to the "glue" that holds it all together. Recipes proliferated in the 19th century, originally using mix-ins like breadcrumbs and spices for economic reasons. Today, however, the more crabmeat the better, and breadcrumbs as a mix-in have evolved from classic to worn out. When Phillips Foods and the American Culinary Fed eration held its "a dozen ways to dress a crab cake" contest, open only to the American Academy of Chefs, the entrants used everything from pretzels to roasted pistachio and chili sauce to carrot ginger sauce to spice up their cakes. Grand prize winner chef Michael Garbin used celery root and orange slaw with an avocado drizzle and roasted tomato relish .

The dipping sauce is just one more way to flavor a crab cake. Tartar is still the favorite, according to research conducted by Datassential of Chicago, but restaurants are using ginger, citrus, vinaigrette, chipotle and other sauces to make their recipes stand out. Water Grill in Los Angeles serves its crab cake appetizer with a yogurt-lime cucumber sauce.

Crab cakes have the ability to transcend a restaurant's core product profile. Customers would be hard pressed to find an Italian restaurant that serves a burrito, but crab cakes can be found on every type of menu from Italian to Mexican, each format altering the traditional ingredients to fit its respective cuisine.

Fine-dining restaurants still claim the majority of crab-cake menu mentions. According to Datassential research, the product can be found on 36 percent of steakhouse menus and 23.4 percent of French restaurants, even making appearances in coffee houses and bakeries.

More and more casual-dining and QSRs are menuing them: Crab cakes can be found on 18.1 percent of casual-dining restaurant menus. Applebees, Ruby Tuesday, Red Lobster and Big Boy are some of the most recent chains to surf the crab-cake current. Crab cakes' versatility also allows them myriad menu mentions. Flip the page of the menu to select a second course and you are just as likely to find crab cakes on the entrée list. Eight percent of menus feature crab cakes as both an appetizer and entrée.

Even supermarkets have opened their frozen food aisles to include crab cakes. Foodservice providers like Crab Associates, Phillips, Twin Tails Seafood and more are developing retail-ready crab cakes. King & Prince released a line of bite-size gourmet crab cakes in late 2006. Crab Associates in Pinellas Park, Fla., is scheduled to sell its frozen crab cakes at Fresh Market and Whole Foods Market. Byrd International began selling crab cakes to foodservice customers in October 2006.

Fried, deviled, sautéed, roasted, baked, broiled, any way you serve them, crab cakes are crawling off menus, out of refrigerators and onto plates across the nation.


Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com


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