Tony Conrad started out working in an office on weekdays and crabbing on the weekend to make extra money.
Now, he operates four outlets for crabs, including Conrad's seafood market on Joppa Road in Parkville and the new restaurant Conrad's in Perry Hall.
He's still out on the bay, although it's now six days a week. And, when you eat his crabs in the evening, especially in season, there's a good chance he caught them that morning.
Conrad said he's not the only Baltimore-area crabhouse owner who also catches crabs, but "we can count on two hands the people who do this."
By "we" he means he and his wife Andrea. He catches crabs and manages the seafood, she does the books and marketing.
Tony Conrad's partner in marriage and business is the former Andrea Antonakos. They met when both were working at Michael's Cafe in Timonium. He proposed when she graduated from Loyola College Maryland, where she majored in psychology.
In addition to the restaurant and market, the couple sells crabs from a truck in Jacksonville and operate the crab concession at Cal Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen.
It's been an unusual journey for a Parkville boy who graduated from Calvert Hall College High School in 1993. He went on to Baltimore County Community College in Essex and Towson University, where he majored in criminal justice and played slot back and strong safety for the Tigers football team.
He said his family links to the seafood business go back to the Civil War era in southern Maryland.
"My ancestors would catch crabs and rockfish and feed the railroad workers," he said.
He started out crabbing with his father, John Conrad, and then learned the commercial crabbing business from the late Bill Gunther Sr. of Harford County. He kept on catching jimmies.
"I liked doing this. It was a weekend thing to do," he said.
He spent time working for an information technology company and a food distributor and picked up useful business skills. Finally, he felt he had a skill set worthy to start a seafood enterprise.
He told his wife he wanted to quit his weekday job and go into the seafood business full time.
"She said, 'Are you crazy?' "
Across the table, Andrea Conrad just smiled.
Joppa Seafood on Joppa Road was looking for a buyer and Conrad took it over with two partners, Michael Dellis and Frank Petillo. He later bought them out.
"It was a challenge the first couple of years," he said. "In the crab world, everyone wants crabs from the first pitch of baseball season to when the kids go back to school. Then, it drops off."
He and his wife had long considered a restaurant and had studied various locations. He was also introduced to a chef, Joe Lancelotta, and the two hit it off.
"As soon as I met Joe, I said, 'He's a beast.' He's just like me," Conrad said.
Mickey Cucchiella, a former disc jockey Conrad knows, tipped him to a good location. It turned out to be a tavern on Belair Road that was once the Perry Inn and, subsequently, the nightclubs Surf City and Smash Daddy's.
Conrad went into partnership with Lancelotta and his brother, Mike Lancelotta, to buy the property. Thus began an 18-month renovation that transformed the property into a state-of-the-art crabhouse that opened in January.
He won't divulge how many crabs he moves through the restaurant's steam vats daily, not wishing to tip competitors.
"That's like asking our secret recipe," he said.
As for his crab spice, it's a house blend mixed under Conrad's formula by J.O. Spice Co. of Halethorpe.
Conrad operates two boats, the Hannah Marie and Ellie Christine (both named for his daughters), out of the Galloway Creek Marina in Bowley's Quarters. He operates one with a crew of two and — along with the other boat with a crew of three — they pull in crabs beginning at 5:30 a.m. six days a week (except Sunday), returning at 1 p.m.
The restaurateur cannot catch all the crabs needed for his businesses. He supplements with crabs from watermen in Middle River and on the Eastern Shore. In the winter, they import from Louisiana.
Last week, the per-dozen restaurant prices for steamed crabs ranged from $32 for smalls up to $115 for jumbos.
Yes, Conrad admitted, the prices take your breath away.
"It's the highest crabs have ever been. It's horrible," he said.
At the bar last week were Jeff Burrill and Kevin Znamirowski, who both live within walking distance. As neighbors, they said they appreciate the upgrade from the previous incarnations.
"This is the first one we're happy about," Burrill said. "And the crab fries here are incredible."
"We want to see this place succeed," Znamirowski said.
At a corner table was the Olson family from Bel Air entertaining an out-of-town guest, Colleen Reagan, of Rochester, N.Y., who said she always visits Maryland with a hankering for seafood. Awaiting their entrees, they were noshing on "the best calamari ever."
Tina Olson was tickled. She had asked that the grouper appetizer be upsized and served as an entree.
"They said, 'No problem.' "