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A century of soft crabs at Handy's
October 4, 2017

A century of soft crabs at Handy’s

‘Same company, same town, same species’ since coming to Crisfield in 1903
By Richard Crumbacker
Crisfield-Somerset County Times

 
CRISFIELD — A fish business based in rural Rehobeth that would relocate to Crisfield in 1903 is marking 100 years since the introduction of its signature product — the soft shell crab.
 
How the former John T. Handy Co. got into the soft crab business is lost to time but that decision in 1917 helped what is today Handy Seafood Inc. branch out far beyond a mid- Atlantic market. To celebrate the anniversary, over 100 employees and invited guests took part in a crab feast last Wednesday outside the Seventh Street plant.
 
Todd Conway is now CEO and president of the company which his father Terry bought from the Handy family in 1981. He said oysters and fish were already a staple with soft crabs added 100 years ago. Besides improvements in refrigeration and transportation (from trains to planes) the significant difference today is in their grading, with each crab weighed and standardized so Whales, Jumbos, Primes, Hotels and Mediums are packaged accordingly.
 
The shedding houses on the property are leased, and are full from the run in May staying active through early fall — longer if unseasonably warm temperatures persist.
 
Two years ago Handy circulated a video to help teach the uninitiated how to prepare soft crabs, and the promotion declared the delicacy “one of the best treats from the Chesapeake.” “Domestic soft shell crabs havea sweet, rich, buttery flavor that require little seasoning so the true flavor can be enjoyed,”the story goes. There’s a test kitchen at theplant, and Mr. Conway
said there is a continuing effort to grow awareness of soft crabs and other fare. “It’s a great product,” he said.
 
Employees, watermen and guests celebrating 100 years of processing soft shell crabs at Handy Seafood wave during a group picture taken last Wednesday outside the Seventh Street plant. The former John T. Handy Co. was founded in 1894 and started operating in Crisfield in 1903, adding soft crabs to its product line in 1917. Since the mid-1980s it’s expanded sales to a world-wide market.
Special to the Crisfield-Somerset County Times/ Handy Seafood
 
Freshly fished up, three dozen live soft shell crabs are neatly placed for processing by Handy Seafood employees.
 
Handy started business in 1894 and nine year later was operating from a building across from the City Dock. The train then ran downtown and product was shipped by Railway Express out to Philadelphia and New York markets. Mr. Conway worked in that building in the early 1980s but he said it was too small for any serious volume so the operation relocated to the current plant which he understands German POWs helped build during World War II.
 
“I’m no expert on the history,” Mr. Conway admitted.
 
With a peak summer payroll of some 80 employees, it falls back to around 60 in the winter when oysters and other products are processed. Handy is focused on value, and providing foods consumers want. Its gluten free crab cakes, for example, were introduced just as that dietary movement was taking off, and since then it’s added gluten-free crab and shrimp risotto cakes.
 
Pasteurized crab meat is the company’s sales leader, although as a privately held concern it keeps its financials closed.
“We try to keep the plant busy allyear round,” Mr. Conway said, with the recent addition of domestic crab meat. The mid-Atlantic market remains strong, but there’s also the West Coast to satisfy and there is continued interest in expanding retail sales.
 
The original building downtown would be vacated, sold, and later the city acquired it and it was razed in August 2013 to become incorporated into the nearly completed “green space.” Terry Conway takes pride in the fact it’s the “The same company, the same town, the same species” with the coastal market from Boston now down to Texas going strong.
 
He said it’s all about putting out good products, and expressed gratitude to the “ wonderful employees” who take care of the business and require little supervision.
“This is their home,” he said. “They’re very special.”
It was under the senior Conway’s leadership that Handy moved from just a mid-Atlantic retailer to a company selling products across the United States and to the west coast. In 1985, Handy broke into the Japanese market, and a year later began selling soft crabs in Europe. 
 
What was founded as the John T. Handy Co. in 1894 in Rehobeth moved to Crisfield in 1903 and started soft shell crab sales in 1917, going international in 1985. The original processing plant at the foot of the city dock is 
 
Crisfield-Somerset County Times/ Richard Crumbacker
 


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