Sep 14, 2021 - Business

Crab cake sticker shock: A crabmeat shortage hits Charlotte restaurants

lulu's crab cake

Lulu's crab cake. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

When your restaurant makes arguably the best crab cakes in the city, and people line up for hours to eat your crab cakes, to the point where you’ve decided to open a second location just to sell more crab cakes, about the only thing you can’t afford to live without is … crab meat.

  • But that’s the situation Jay and Miketa Davis have found themselves in since April.

What’s happening: A national crabmeat shortage has caused a 40-50% drop in business for the owners of Lulu’s Maryland-Style Chicken and Seafood. Every week it seems, they encounter another angry customer who’s come to bite into the jumbo lump hype, only to be disappointed.

  • “I’ve had to say this so many times: We’re not turning them away because we don’t want to give it to them,” Jay tells me. “We’re turning them away because we don’t have it.”

Why it matters: The crabmeat shortage may not be the most pressing issue in this year of shortages, but it’s a clear window into how quickly a supply chain can be disrupted, and by how much.

  • When Davis can find meat, a pound that used to go for between $20-$30 is now going for between $50-$60, and Davis is now turning that over to customers, asking them to help him cover it.
  • They’re not alone in their misery. Restaurants throughout the east coast — Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Florida — have pulled crab cakes off the menu.

The big picture: From catchers to cooks, professionals along the seafood-to-table line are left trying to make their businesses work. And nobody really has a definitive answer as to what the heck’s happening.

“Highest I’ve ever seen,” Murray Bridges, owner of Endurance Seafood in Colington on the Outer Banks, tells me of the $200-per-bushel pricetag he’s putting on No. 1 male blue crabs he sells directly from his dock (meaning at a much lower cost than you’d get through a distributor).

  • Bridges, known as the “Crabfather of Colington” has been crabbing the Roanoke Sound for 50 years and some years, he says, the crabs just aren’t there.
  • Couple that with labor shortages and other issues with supply chain, and you’ve got the recipe for high prices and low supply.

Bridges spends $450 a day just to run out and check his 250 pots.

When I talked to him yesterday he’d just gotten back. He had about 6 bushels, he said; in a good year he’d have about 10 in September

  • “I don’t know why or what,” he says. “I don’t think anybody does.”

Down the line: Last year at this time, the Davises were ordering 100 cases of crabmeat a week, each one containing 6 one-pound cans of meat. Now they’re down to getting about 25 cases a week.

  • Lots of restaurants can cheat and stretch out a pound of crab meat by adding filling or shrinking the cakes. But Lulu’s is known for its crab cakes, and the reason it’s known for its crab cakes is that they don’t skimp on real meat — they use a half-pound per cake.
  • So at 25 cases a week, they can now make about 300 crab cakes a week. Last year at this time they could make 1,200.

The cost then: Back pre-shortage, they were paying $100 to $130 for a case of six. That’s between $8.33 and $10.80 of crab meat per cake.

  • And they were selling a crab cake platter, with rice and sides, for just over $20.

The cost now: In one of Jay’s most recent purchases, he bought a case of six for $272.

  • That’s nearly $23 worth of crab meat per crab cake, and it doesn’t include the other ingredients.
  • “We’re almost not making any profit on it anymore, honestly,” he says.

The bottom line: If you’re still paying less than $10 a crab cake anywhere in Charlotte at this point, you’re probably eating way more cake than crab.

Going forward: Davis says he’s still planning to open the second location of Lulu’s on Central Avenue beside Pinhouse in the next couple of months. But it has made him rethink some of the menu.

  • Already they’ve taken the seafood mac-n-cheese off the menu at the original Lulu’s because they couldn’t get the super lump crab meat they use in the recipe.

Zoom out: Early in the year, the picking houses on the coast were struggling to find pickers. They’re often migrant workers.

But Bridges, the crabber with more than 50 years experience, tells me the problem is the crabs themselves:

  • He says that a cool and wet spring meant a lot of freshwater pouring into the watershed. Crabs thrive in areas where there’s a good mix of saltwater and freshwater.
  • “That’s just my opinion,” Bridges says through a thick brogue.

Yes, but: Bridges says some relief should come this soon. Fall’s always a better time of year for crabs, especially those in North Carolina. And then he thinks next year will be better.

That’s sort of the curse and the charm of being in the seafood business, whether you’re catching it, cooking it, or eating it: No matter how bad this year is, there’s always the hope that next season will be better.

  • “If they were all good years,” Bridges laughs, “everybody would be on the water.”

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