Savoring success from crab cakes


The breakneck growth at Dundalk's M&I; Seafood Manufacturing Inc. has all the ingredients of your typical hometown, family-business success story.

The four owners are related and started out working for a fabled Baltimore restaurant chain. Then they whipped up a crab cake recipe in the kitchen and found their fortunes selling Maryland's most cherished cuisine.

But this being the end of the 20th century, there is, of course, a heavy dose of high-tech modernity behind the local company whose revenue has more than doubled in the past four years.

It's television.

M&I; Seafood, which trades under the name Chesapeake Bay Gourmet, will celebrate the sale of its 2 millionth crab cake on television today. After four years of marketing its products on cable shopping network QVC, the company is selling $7 million worth of products a year, has doubled its work force and is tripling the size of its Baltimore manufacturing center.

"When you're in a small business, you do whatever it takes," said Ron Kauffman, a co-owner of M&I; Seafood. "And this has worked. It's a nice ride that we're on right now."

QVC operates a 24-hour television marketing show and collects a percentage of the sales from vendors whose products it presents. The company's show reaches 70 million households in the United States and sold more than $2.4 billion worth of products last year.

But Kauffman and his wife, Margie, had never heard of QVC when, in 1995, they were invited by state economic development officials to submit products for a Maryland-themed show.

M&I; Seafood needed a marketing jolt. It packaged crab cakes and other seafood items for grocery stores and wholesale clubs, and sales had stalled at about $3.5 million a year. The owners were thinking of selling the business.

The company's Chesapeake Bay Gourmet crab cakes were among the 20 products selected to appear on QVC, and business has soared.

"It was on Oct. 22, 1995. I'll never forget that day," said Kauffman. "Margie and I had never been on TV, and we were the first ones to go on. And in seven minutes, we sold 2,000 dozen crab cakes."

Kauffman handles the company's sales, marketing and finances, and his wife runs the everyday operations. Margie Kauffman's brother, Les Isennock, buys the crab meat, and his wife, Linda, is the company receptionist. Three of the four worked for the Gino's restaurant chain in the 1970s.

It was the Isennocks who noticed that grocery stores didn't sell crab cakes, and they concocted a recipe in their kitchen that led to the formation of M&I; Seafood in 1979.

It was QVC, however, that turned Chesapeake Bay Gourmet into a national brand.

One dozen 3-ounce crab cakes sell on QVC for $49 plus shipping costs. M&I; Seafood's 2 millionth television-sale crab cake will be marked by a ceremony today at the Dundalk processing plant.

The Chesapeake Bay Gourmet crab cakes are of the true Maryland variety -- made from back-fin crab meat with just enough filler to hold them together. The crab meat comes from picking houses throughout Maryland, other states and occasionally other countries.

The only machine used to make the crab cakes is a large blender in which the non-crab ingredients are mixed. The crab meat is folded in by hand, the cakes are portioned out with an ice cream scoop, and then the product is flash-frozen and shipped in insulated containers with dry ice.

M&I; Seafood employs about 60 people and will move to a new processing center near White Marsh this year.

The company makes more than crab cakes -- it sells items such as soups, lobster cakes, crab imperial and stuffed flounder.

But it is the crab cake that made the company, Kauffman said -- along with some long hours and the decision four years ago to sell crab cakes on television.

"After having some problems over the years with declining sales, it's nice to be in this position," said Kauffman. "We've found an unusual niche."

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