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Special Feature: Crab cakes

Greater variety of flavors extends product's market reach

By Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2010

They're an American comfort food that doesn't seem to wane in popularity, so it should come as no surprise that crab cakes have remained on restaurant menus through the recession, holding their place as a value-added dish.

In 2009 crab cakes' menu penetration increased to 15.1 percent, according to a MenuTrends Direct report from Datassential, a research firm with offices in Chicago and Los Angeles.

In the fine-dining segment, 48.2 percent of restaurants menued crab cakes last year, while the casual-dining segment followed at 22.8 percent. Statistics from MenuMine, a menu-information database from Foodservice Research Institute, indicated that 41 percent of crab cakes are menued as appetizers, and 37 percent are menued as center-of-plate entrées.

The playing field for crab cakes has changed since 1987, when Handy International first started producing crab cakes, says
President Carol Haltaman. "Back then they were
 mostly offered in the 
 mid-Atlantic states, where most restaurants and consumers were making their own," she says. "Today we find that different regions of the country prefer different flavor profiles when it comes to crab cakes, but the common ground is that the demand continues to grow."

Handy International offers SFlb 14 different crab cake recipes to both the retail and foodservice markets, each available in a variety of portion sizes and shapes. The company's newest additions are gluten-free crab cakes and Crab House crab cakes, the latter developed as "a value cake that tasted great and yet met a certain consumer price point that was lower than some of our other offerings," she says.

Handy's value line of crab cakes utilizes a lower percentage of crabmeat, resulting in a crab cake that costs 67 percent less than Handy's most popular crab cake. "Our goal is to appeal to new markets and any current markets seeking a lower cost," says Haltaman.

As the economy has tightened, more people are looking for affordable products to menu and make at home, says Honey Konicoff, VP of marketing for Phillips Foods. The company recently launched the Everyday Crab Cake in its foodservice segment with a suggested distributor pricing of $1.99 per two-pack. For retail, Phillips produced the Coast Crab Cake, a price-driven item featuring a combination of lumps of flaky white body meat and claw meat with a suggested retail price of $4.99 for a two-pack.

One way Phillips is creating innovation in the crab cake category is by trying to capitalize on the recent slider trend.

"Seafood cake sliders are new to the market and we introduced four varieties this year," says Konicoff. The 1.5-ounce sliders are available in crab and shrimp, salmon, lobster and crab cakes, and can be baked or pan-sautéed. "They offer portion control, labor savings and versatility as a center-of-plate entrée or shareable appetizer," she says.

The versatility of cooking methods offered by Phillips' crab cakes are a key element in their success and popularity both in foodservice and retail, she adds.

"That has a lot to do with the innovative wet mix we use in the cakes. In 2009 we spent close to a year working to create a wet 
mix that produced a better crab cake under various cooking conditions. Our crab cakes cook from thawed or frozen and can be baked, broiled, pan sautéed or fried," says Konicoff.

The market for crab cakes has become increasingly competitive in recent years. "Back in the late '80s there was little competition, but today there's a lot, with many processors that never worked with crab or any sort of seafood cake adding this item to their line," Haltaman says.

Angelo Ramunni, president of Crabby Pete's in Long Island City, N.Y., agrees with Haltaman.

"Every time I turn around I see another company out there producing crab cakes," he says.

Ramunni has been producing crab cakes for the past nine years, and built a manufacturing plant and launched the Crabby Pete's label two years ago. The company has two blends of crab cakes, with wholesale and retail divisions. "We're in negotiations to do private label for Walmart in Seattle and Costco," he says.

The most popular retail and wholesale item for Crabby Pete's is a pre-cooked, individually wrapped 4-ounce crab cake that's microwaveable or ovenable. Sales have been on the rise since the inception of the Crabby Pete's label, even through the recession, Ramunni says. "I think it has to do with the price point of our crab cakes. We're a value-added product that's priced right and easy to take home. Because of that, our products' flavor and the way we're packaged, we've been recession-proof, so far."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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