AND SO WE come to these imponderables: Is the world - or, at least, the Eastern Shore - ready for the McDonald's crab cake? Can we accept it both as concept and as something one actually might eat? Can the Golden Arches, symbol of ubiquity and sameness in American fast-food culture, find success by offering a beloved native dish on its menu? Will customers craving a quarter-pounder with cheese opt for a 3.5-ounce crab cake sandwich instead?
The operators of at least 35 McDonald restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and southern Delaware will get the answers to these and other intriguing questions this summer. After test runs in each of the past two years, McDonald's finally has a product it thinks will sell. The 2003 crab cake has less fish filler and less corn meal than the one the company offered on a limited basis in the summers of 2001 and 2002.
(Disclaimer: This columnist has not sampled the McDonald's crab cake and doesn't intend to. This columnist continues to observe a boycott of Maryland crabmeat, in the belief that the state needs an outright moratorium on the crab harvest to save the stock. Be that as it may, I report this story because of its "cultural" value - and with the grand hope that none of my discriminating readers buy a McCrab, or any other such concoction, until the Chesapeake crab numbers look better. Now, back to our regularly scheduled column.)
This new model tastes more like a crab cake and it looks less like a fishy hush puppie, says Rick Hoff, whose family owns three Delmarva McDonald's, including a particularly busy one on U.S. 50 in Easton.
Most important of all, adds Hoff, this one is handmade.
You got that? Something they sell at a McDonald's was actually handmade.
"I grew up on the Eastern Shore, I know crab cakes," Hoff says. "Up until this past February, all the crab cakes in our testing were being made by machine. We found that the machine process broke up the lump. The lump was what people wanted to see when they bit into it. That's what made it look like a Maryland crab cake. So that's when we said, 'We've got to make them by hand.'"
Sea Watch International, an Easton-based company that prepares seafood for use by restaurant chains, agreed to try a batch made with human hands. Hoff was happy with the result. "The crab cake was still very uniform from the outside, but when you opened it up, it was the real deal, with a good bit of lump," he says. "And it didn't increase the cost of the product."
So it's on the menu this summer for $4.99.
Sea Watch has made 80,000 pre-fried, microwave-ready crab cakes for McDonald's already, according to Bernie Carr, who helped develop the product for the company. He says the crab cake is 67 percent lump and back fin, and seasoned with Old Bay.
The product is being advertised on radio, television and billboards on the Delmarva peninsula through a cooperative of McDonald's restaurants. Hoff heads the co-op and pushed for the crab cake, figuring that if his peers in Maine could sell a fast-food version of a lobster roll during the tourist season, then Eastern Shore McDonald's ought to be able to go native, too.
About two years ago, he and his colleagues took the idea of a crab cake to their regional corporate overseers, presenting a plan for developing and marketing the new product within McDonald's guidelines for production efficiency, cleanliness and profitability. The company supported Hoff's ideas, but it was the Eastern Shore cooperative that had to come up with a sandwich that crab cake-savvy locals, as well as tourists, would want to buy more than once.
"My whole philosophy through this was: 'Find the product we want to sell, that will have some credibility, and help us make money.' My main concern was having a product of quality first: 'Let's find the product, then put a price tag on it.' We worked with Sea Watch and we probably tried eight different samples," Hoff says.
Making the crab cake by hand is what made the difference.
"People want to see the crab meat," says Carr of Sea Watch. "Now there are larger pieces of lump in the cake. It just jumps out. We have a quality, affordable crab cake now."
Sales are "going very well," notes Hoff, who says his cooperative will conduct consumer surveys in August to determine if the McDonald's crab cake reappears next summer.
And one wonders, with success at this level, what the next step will be? The McCrab Imperial? Watch this space.