When John Minadakis saw the PETA billboard urging Baltimoreans not to eat crabs, he didn’t see any humor in the campaign. Minadakis, who owns Jimmy’s Famous Seafood restaurant in Dundalk with his family, felt attacked.
“I had to fight back,” Minadakis said. “This is our family’s business. This is all we know.”
After PETA put up a billboard in Baltimore on Aug. 22 that told locals to “see the individual” within crabs and to “go vegan,” Jimmy’s took to Twitter to drive the animal rights organization out of town and launched a billboard of its own, all of which has drawn national attention to the veteran seafood spot.
“SteaMEd crabs. Here to stay. Get Famous,” the billboard reads, depicting a steamed crab covered in seasoning and the restaurant’s logo.
Enough was enough, Minadakis said. In his mind, PETA’s billboard was an affront to the area’s many crab-eating residents and seafood restaurants. He said the preparation and eating of crabs — particularly steamed crabs, what Jimmy’s and the region is known for — is “not inhumane.”
“It’s a crab. It’s not a cow. It’s not a chicken,” Minadakis said. “[Eating crabs] is in our DNA as Marylanders.”
PETA, however, disagrees. The Baltimore billboard is a part of a national campaign “designed to remind everyone that crabs and other marine animals are sensitive, intelligent individuals,” said Ashley Byrne, associate director of PETA.
The “I’m Me, Not Meat” campaign, which began in 2016, has featured animals such as a cow, a pig and a lobster on its advertisements, according to Byrne. The Baltimore billboard will be up for a month, she said.
“We are in favor of anything that starts the conversation about the fact that animals that we eat feel pain just like the cats and dogs we live with and love,” Byrne said.
In 2013, PETA published a video of crabs from a Maine facility “slammed against sharp metal spikes to break off their top shells, and then their exposed internal organs were violently scrubbed off with spinning brushes. They were then slowly lowered into a vat of boiling water while they were still alive.”
Tracy Reiman, PETA executive vice president, said, in part, in a statement: “[A] PETA investigation has shown that [crabs] endure agonizing deaths in order to be used for dinner — so if PETA's billboard encouraged even one Baltimorean to view these complex crustaceans as individuals and go vegan, then it worked like a charm in our mind.”
On Tuesday morning, Jimmy’s posted a response on Twitter to PETA’s statement that painted the organization as hypocritical.
“If there’s one word anyone associated with PETA should never use, [it’s] ‘compassionate.’ Would a compassionate person murder 36,000 innocent animals? … You purchase stock in companies you vilify, such as Sea World & McDonald’s because it’s really only about the money and publicity for you.”
In response, Byrne said owning stock with such companies allows PETA to “have a presence at shareholder meetings” and has proven to be effective in making companies address animal-welfare issues. She said PETA’s animal euthanasia numbers seem high because the organization’s “open-door intake policy” means they accept all pets, including abused and neglected animals other shelters would turn away, she said.
In 1974, Minadakis’ father, Dimitrios "Jimmy" Minadakis opened Jimmy’s Famous Seafood in the 6500 block of Holabird Ave. He and his wife, Foula Minadakis, raised their family — sons John, Nick and Tony — above the restaurant. When their father died in 2003 from throat cancer, it was up to the brothers to step up and run the restaurant.
Now, Minadakis runs Jimmy’s with Tony, while Foula still works carry-out and greets customers. The family takes pride in operating Jimmy’s the same as the former patriarch did, Minadakis said, with long-standing recipes and an emphasis on service.
“Nothing has changed,” Minadakis said.
Minadakis said the Maryland crab industry has had enough recent issues, including the recent labor shortage due to a lack of new guest worker visas. He didn’t want to see another outside influence have a negative effect on local business.
“I wasn’t going to sit back and let somebody come in and give us another loss,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Jimmy’s’ social media accounts have made headlines. On Twitter, the restaurant has offered free-agent athletes free crab cakes for life if they sign with a Baltimore team.
When a Twitter user said on Aug. 26 he wished Jimmy’s would open a location in Chicago, Jimmy’s Twitter said it was in if Michael Jordan came out of retirement. When the user suggested current Chicago Bulls player Zach LaVine could suffice, Jimmy’s shut it down.
“How about you give us the [$78 million] you wasted on LaVine, and we give you free crab cakes for life?” Jimmy’s replied. (The tweets went viral, and became a talking point on ESPN and cable news channels the next day.)
For Jimmy’s, Twitter is a way for the brand to show its personality, Minadakis said.
“If you go through our old tweets, we’re not changing anything,” he said. “This is our tone — it’s not traditional: ‘Don’t cross the line. Don’t cuss. But have a little fun.’”
Mystery remains regarding the person behind Jimmy’s’ Twitter and its quick clapbacks online. Minadakis said it’s not him (“I’m not that witty or smart”), but declined to identify the person. Jimmy’s is planning a charity event during which it will reveal the Twitter mastermind’s identity once the target amount is raised.
Since Jimmy’s started its feud with PETA, Minadakis said he’s received calls from restaurateurs around the country who’ve told him to continue to fight because they’ve lost their businesses due to PETA’s influence. He said the restaurant has seen increase of online orders for crab cakes and T-shirts, along with new Twitter followers.
“We hear all of the time, ‘It’s so cool to see a business not back down,’” he said.
Meanwhile, Byrne said PETA has heard from many Marylanders who said the billboard made them think about crabs in a way they hadn’t before, and locals are requesting PETA’s vegan starter kits, which help new vegans make the transition to a plant-based diet.
“They hadn’t considered crabs feel pain like other animals,” she said.
Minadakis said his hope is for PETA to leave Baltimore. While the organization touts victories for animal-rights causes in other areas, he hopes PETA receives the message Jimmy’s is pushing: There’s no separating Marylanders from their crabs.
“When the dust settles, I want people to look back and say, ‘PETA won here, and they won there, but when they went to Baltimore, they packed their bags and went out,’” Minadakis said.