The crabs piled on a table at a backyard crab feast, hot and spicy, are probably sprinkled with a unique taste many in the area associate with summer in Maryland.
If the crabs came from one of the area's carryout restaurants or crab houses, more than likely the seasoning isn't the iconic Old Bay. Chances are, it's a seasoning mix produced in an industrial park off Sulphur Spring Road.
This is no McCormick with its giant campus in Hunt Valley and hundreds of employees. J.O. Spice Co. on Old Georgetown Road is still family run and employs a couple dozen people to produce seafood seasoning, as well as a whole line of products to spice up meat, fish and poultry.
"You go to a restaurant and you eat your crabs, and you think you're eating Old Bay," said Ginger Ports, vice president of marketing and sales for J.O. Spice Co.
And, Ports said, that's fine. "That's a Maryland icon. There's a place for that product," she said.
"Old Bay is in the grocery store," she said. "J.O. is in the restaurants."
At many area crab houses, the famous crustacean is encrusted with J.O. Spice. Ports said they count some 800 mid-Atlantic restaurants, crab houses and carry-outs among its regular customers. Customers include Phillips Seafood Restaurants in Baltimore and Ocean City, Nick's Fish House in south Baltimore and Annapolis Seafood Market in Severna Park and Annapolis. Restaurants can choose from either of two standard seafood spice blends or one customized for their restaurants, according to Ports.
Sea Hut Inn on Frederick Road has been seasoning its crabs with J.O. since it opened 31 years ago, according to owner Sue Yin.
Sea Hut orders its own custom blend from J.O. "We have a little bit of everything in it," Yin said.
"Most crab houses have their own blend," she added.
"In my store, we use J.O. for all of our crabs," said Barry Koluch, who owns Cravin' Crabs in Baltimore Highlands with his father, Paul Koluch. When the Koluchs were getting ready to open Cravin' Crabs on Annapolis Road about five years ago, J.O. mixed up small batches for the Koluchs to take home and sample.
After a few trials, they hit upon a blend that balances the salt and the heat. "We wanted it to appeal to the masses," Koluch said.
J.O Spice Co., founded in 1945 in a Baltimore storefront, has been producing their combinations of spices — all kinds of blends, sauces and batter mixes — in Halethorpe for the past 24 years. In December, the company took over the adjacent space, a former closet company, to double their space, adding 14,000 square feet to their plant.
A family-owned operation, it was started by James Ozzie Strigle and his wife, Dot, who moved to Baltimore from Tangier Island, Va., where Strigle had been a waterman, according to the company website. Strigle produced the original, No. 1, blend to use on all seafood. The mix for crabs, No. 2, came along later, laced with the flake salt favored by steamed crab aficionados, according to Ports.
The company remains in the hands of family. Don Ports, Strigle's grandson, is president now. Ginger Ports is his wife.
Their main focus is the local crab house as well as seafood houses from New Jersey to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. J.O. has 25 distributors handling orders in North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey and New York. Small as they are, J.O. is spicing things up as far away as Australia and Singapore, too.
With the company delivering their spice mixes directly to restaurants and crab houses, you might not have heard of it. "J.O. has always been on the wholesale side," Ports said.
You won't find it on the spice shelves at Giant or Safeway — although Ports said Safeway does steam its shrimp in either J.O.'s No. 1 blend or Old Bay.
Local seafood shops carry small bottles of No. 1 and No. 2 and some of their other seasonings and batter mixes.
The familiar yellow and blue Old Bay can is stocked in major retail outlets. "It's a consumer brand and a consumer item," said Laurie Harrsen, McCormick's director of public relations and consumer communications. "That's the way it started."