Wings spots, burger joints and steakhouses all seem to do particularly well in Atlanta, and it may be time to add another restaurant genre to that list: the crab shack.
In the past year, at least eight new crab restaurants have opened or been announced. According to Steve McConnell, sales manager at distributor Inland Seafood, there has been a surge of new crabcentric restaurants in Atlanta, compared with the company’s other markets. And, there hasn’t been much method to the crab madness; the new restaurants have taken over iconic in-town locations and cropped up in the suburbs, owned by both out-of-towners and Atlanta industry veterans.
One reason is actually an optimistic one: North American crabs are highly sustainable.
According to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, crab varieties like blue, red king and snow are considered “best choice” seafood, when properly sourced. That means snow crabs and king crabs from Alaskan waters and the North Atlantic, and blue crabs from Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay and the western Atlantic Ocean. However, crabs from other regions, such as Russian waters, are labeled “avoid,” thanks to the prevalence of illegal and unregulated crabbing there.
While consumers are demanding more sustainable seafood options, another major change in the market likely has helped spur the growth of crab shacks in town. In 2017, national chain Joe’s Crab Shack declared bankruptcy and closed 40 locations, including several in the metro Atlanta area, thereby creating a void in the crab restaurant market.
Other reasons for the crab shack renaissance may have to do with the realities of running a restaurant in today’s economy.
“We’ve seen a trend toward more fast-casual, less formal dining,” McConnell said. “We think the crab shack wave is an extension of that.”
Not only do diners seem to prefer fast-casual, but market conditions have forced many restaurants to streamline. For years, chefs and restaurant owners have bemoaned a labor shortage, but the traditional crab shack format skirts the issue with bare-bones service. Many crab restaurants are serve-yourself buffets, while others eschew a cocktail program in favor of a simpler wine and beer menu or even BYOB.
In addition, quickly cooked crab legs are easy to replenish in an all-you-can-eat format, and they can be frozen in the shell for nine to 12 months, according to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. The combination of quick cooking time and relatively long shelf life helps some restaurants cut down on food waste; they can prepare more crab only when it’s needed. Those streamlined economics help restaurants attract diners with low prices on what typically is seen as a luxury menu item.
“Crab legs tend to be pricey in restaurants, but the crab shack format helps cut costs, so that owners can offer relatively low prices,” McConnell said. “For a lot of these places, crab might be a loss leader — it brings customers in, and the restaurant might make up their margin elsewhere.”
While plenty of Atlanta’s crab shacks are stripped-down affairs, some restaurant owners are moving in the opposite direction, upscaling old-school restaurant formats by adding craft bar programs and stylish ambiance; think Superica for Tex-Mex or LLoyd’s for blue-plate specials. That’s the thought process behind Girl Diver, the forthcoming modernized crab shack from Richard Tang, who also owns Char in Inman Park.
“It’s not ingenious, it’s not a new idea,” Tang said of the restaurant, slated to open this winter in the Madison Yards development in Reynoldstown. “For us, it’s about execution. We’re bringing a high level of customer service and a great bar program to an Asian seafood concept, and we’re bringing it into the city of Atlanta.”
There also are cultural reasons for the increase in crab-focused restaurants. Crab is important to a variety of global cuisines, and many Atlanta restaurants cater to specific cultures, like Cajun or Vietnamese. Atlanta also is a mecca for black culture, of which soul food is a major component, and crab is a seldom-mentioned but important fixture of soul food, a cuisine that evolved with heavy influence from the coastal Gullah and Geechee cultures. Crab, in various forms, remains an important part of fish fries and soul food restaurant menus today.
Whatever the inspiration for this trend, we probably haven’t seen the end of it.
“Along with Miami, Atlanta is really the leader in terms of food trends in the South,” McConnell said. “We’re expecting to see more crab shacks opening in the rest of our markets.”
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