First, the good news: The Rotary Club of Annapolis Crab Feast returns to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Friday.
The bad news: Less than half the usual number of crab feasts – around 1,000 people – are expected to pull out their mallets. This means less money raised for local nonprofits. And two Anne Arundel vendors that had historically supplied crabs from the Chesapeake Bay both closed permanently this year, forcing Rotarians to buy their shellfish on the East Coast.
For Adam Higgins, vice president of Chesapeake Seafood Catering in St. Michaels, stepping in to provide one of the largest crab feasts in the state is a bittersweet step and reflects the post-pandemic precariousness of the food industry. Maryland Seafood.
Annapolis Seafood, where one of Higgins’ “best friends” worked as a manager, closed on May 15. Shoreline Seafood, a Gambrills landmark, closed 10 days later. A marquee outside the iconic concrete Route 3 lighthouse thanked customers for 40 years in business.
The financial pressures facing the seafood industry are complex. There are the obvious losses of two years of canceled events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many crabbers have retired, and those who remain are paying record prices for the bags of knives they use as bait, which used to be almost free. Once in the bay, crabbers face catch restrictions and record low crab populations. And everyone — from boaters to truckers to caterers who fire up gas grills — shells out top dollars for fuel.
“We’re not cheap,” Higgins said.
As a result, tickets for the adult crab feast have increased by $20 this year, from $70 to $90 in 2019. Tickets are available online and at six Annapolis businesses. Feasts get all-you-can-eat big male crabs, east coast sweet corn, barbecue, draft beer, sodas, and water. For dessert, the annual bake sale and cake raffle feature (mostly) home-baked goods by Rotarians.
A few store-bought treats will slip in, admitted Julie Snyder, the club’s advertising president, but “we encourage everyone to bake their own.”
Higgins wants to assure Annapolis diners that even though the crabs now come from across the Bay Bridge, they will be fresh.
“We smoke on site,” he said. Chesapeake Seafood Catering is located on Spencer Creek, just south of St. Michaels. The company gets its supplies directly from the crabbers, who can haul their boats to the wharf, without selling to an intermediary. On Friday, teams will load 125 bushels of live crabs onto five refrigerated trucks and bring the blue ones to Annapolis.
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“We source all of our crabs for this event locally,” Higgins said.
In early spring, Higgins said his company was selling crabs from Louisiana and that this year’s bay harvest restrictions could mean the supply of crabs from the Carolinas. But it draws a clear line in the sand when it comes to importing.
“I’ve never seen a South American crab cross this property,” Higgins said.
As recently as 2019, Rotary of Annapolis boasted that its crab feast was the largest in the world. Not this year. Higgins said he’s having two biggest crab feasts this month, one in Delaware and another in Ocean City. Both are fundraisers, and Higgins has great sympathy for the Rotary Club and others who may end up contributing less money to charity. “Prices are going up,” Higgins said.
In 2018, Rotarians raised $58,000 for their Crab Feast Crab Fund. This year’s pot of money will likely be smaller. Local nonprofits have until October 9 to complete their applications and can receive up to $4,000 if selected for a grant.
In 2020 and 2021, the club raised funds by hosting ‘Crabs to Go’ events at the stadium. This year, Rotary club members are simply focused on kicking off the in-person pick-up event with their new supplier, even if that means setting up fewer tables in the stadium lobby than in the past.
“We’re so excited to be back together,” Snyder said.