Chef connects family’s seafood legacy with contemporary dining

Travis Todd of Ocean Odyssey Seafood Restaurant in Cambridge, Md., shares the company’s journey from crab processing to full-service dining

Your grandparents started a crabbing business in 1947 on the Maryland shore. Tell me about the early days and how the business has evolved into a full-service restaurant. 

My grandparents started a crab processing plant down in a little, hardly-known area of Maryland in Dorchester County called Crocheron. It was a very small fishing village. They set up a crab factory right around a body of water known as Fishing Bay, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay and larger tributaries. Every day, all day, they would pick crabmeat and whatever fish the guys and gals out on the water brought in that day. They would go through the labor-intensive process of picking crabmeat, pound for pound, and load that up on trucks and drive that to retail outlets, restaurants and distributors. We’re talking about 1947 as far as refrigeration goes. If you look at our website, you can still see the big ol’ trucks that they were heaving ice blocks into the back of to keep all this seafood nice and cold. The trip to Baltimore takes an hour and fifteen minutes or so from here. But back then, trucks were a little slower, the roads were a little bit slower. 

If you can imagine what was going on in 1947 and fast-forward to today, you see the amount of connection to the area, to the process, to the seafood industry, to the restaurant industry. You can just imagine the amount of personal connections and stories that have developed over time, and I guess that’s what fuels us to stay in this restaurant business.  

As your business has evolved, what are some of the values that have not changed?

First and foremost, the thing that hasn’t changed is just a feeling of belonging, to a certain extent, and family dedication. When I say family, I’m talking about extended family as well. I think Dorchester County is truly an area where, when you hear people say it takes a village to raise a person, you know that’s very much alive here. 

Number two, and this has always been consistent, is our dedication to using 100-percent domestic blue crab. I made my decision to really jump both-feet first into this thing at a time where imported crab meat was hammering away at the market share of domestic crab meat, whether it was Maryland crabmeat, Virginia crabmeat, Carolina crabmeat, Louisiana, what have you. There was a big push in a lot of restaurants to purchase crabmeat sourced from Venezuela, Indonesia and elsewhere overseas. It was just fine. There’s nothing wrong with that product. But the problem for us was the marketing — people were coming to Maryland and sitting in these waterside restaurants and eating these “Maryland style” crab cakes. That was always the key word – “style.” As long as you had that on your menu, you could use whatever you wanted. These guys were buying this crab meat from international providers at significantly less cost. I get it — sometimes in the restaurant business you run on tight margins. You have to do those things with various products. But, for us, we were so connected to Maryland seafood, and Maryland crabmeat, and having a background in manufacturing before being in the restaurant business that it really created a gigantic amount of respect for the product.

Did you ever consider using imported crabmeat?

That’s one of the things where we definitely draw a line on the sand. There’s a lot in this world that requires flexibility and openness, but that’s one thing where we would sooner take crab cakes off the menu. It’s too much a core of what we are, what we came from and what the history of our family business is.

What prompted you to join the daily business?

Maybe I originally jumped back into this business because I was just angry and I just thought the family could use some help. I had a ton of energy and thought, “Hey, maybe I can get in here at a time where the family needs it most.” I figured out a little bit more about not just the restaurant side of things, but the manufacturing side of things as well.

At that time, the reality set in that it could be gone. It was the possibility of us just becoming a part of history, or a part of a crabmeat packing plant that used to exist. That’s what pushed me over the edge to get back in here and really try to start focusing and helping.

How long have you been part of the business?

I returned from school and really sank my teeth in the beginning of 2003, so this is year 13 or so. It’s been a little over a decade.

What changes have occurred since you joined?

When I originally got back, the backbone of our business was still crabmeat manufacturing, and selling steamed crabs in the restaurant, as well as retail and wholesale. It just so happened that about the time I got back is when things started getting a little tough because the local harvests were down. Imported crabmeat was flooding the market. We were getting pretty close to panic mode. One of the areas in which I felt that I could be of help was in the actual operation of the restaurant portion of the business, which at that time was still very much a mom-and-pop place. You walk in, place your order at the counter, get a little table paddle with a number on it and when your food was up, we’d yell your number out or somebody would bring the food by. It was very simple. It was crab cake sandwiches and soft crab sandwiches and cheesesteak subs and things of that nature that were designed to be just quick comfort foods. People wouldn’t spend much time here, but it was super casual and easygoing.

I felt that we had room to grow and improve. At the time, I thought I had cooked enough through high school that I can jump in here and I can do this, and sure, I know what I’m doing. Turns out, it’s not that easy at all. But nonetheless, I stuck to it and I learned. I just kept trying to develop a different menu, develop a different style of service, and through the course of several years — and I’d say, even still today — we’ve basically converted from what was a manufacturing facility with a little sandwich shop in the front, to a sit-down, full-service, real-deal restaurant where families bring their kids and everybody in the community comes in. We’ve certainly learned and improved our menu over the years, and we’re focusing more and more on products from around this region. So we’ve converted a simple in-and-out sandwich place to a full sit-down restaurant with a great craft beer program and a beer garden outside.

What were some aspects of the restaurant business that were more challenging than you anticipated?

It doesn’t stop. I can only speak for myself, but I kind of always thought that I knew enough about it because I had cooked on the line while I was in high school. I had this inflated confidence that, “Hey, I’m not bad at this, so I think I know what’s going on here.” When you come back then you’re not just working weekends, you’re not just working evenings, and you know that you’re responsible for every product and to a certain degree every person under this roof on a day-to-day basis. And we’re working with really high quality, but highly perishable, Maryland blue crabs. The shelf life on these things is a very narrow window. You have to be on top of it — you have to know your product flow because you can’t really afford to take losses when you’re talking about a $25 to $30 per pound product.

Anybody in the restaurant business can tell you it’s a non-stop grind, and you can’t take your eye off the ball, otherwise you’re going to start taking losses, or quality control is going to start slipping.

There’s a lot of follow-up that has to happen, too. You’re pretty much always going forward, forward, forward, but you have to have that ability to reflect while you’re moving forward so that you can improve. 

What are the things that keep you motivated and engaged?

Fortunately, I feel like there are a lot of sources of good energy. The No. 1 answer is just the connections to not only local customers, but people that travel through here. Ocean Odyssey has become this landmark, this evolving but unchanged and consistent landmark. Every year when we reopen, it’s like you get this reunion with thousands of people that have been a close part of your life for as long as you can remember. It’s pretty great when you can come to work and focus on just the pure work parts of it. But at any given moment, somebody’s going to walk through that door and it’s just going to be fantastic to see them. You just share stories, and oftentimes it is a grind, but you forget when things are going right that you’re even working. You’re just part of a living story rather than watching the clock and saying, “Alright, I’ve only got to work for seven more hours and then I can go live.” That charges your batteries, definitely.

I’m also fueled by the co-workers that are here with us now. For a lot of people who live in the community and kids who are in school, this is their first job. They come here and get a job bussing tables for a summer. Eight years later, you’re still working side-by-side with them in a completely different role, and they’re laughing and talking about, “Hey, I remember this, and I remember that.” You develop these real relationships with people within your community. This year we had somebody whose great-great grandmother used to pick crabs down in the Crocheron factory. And then here they are today.

We just had our 30th anniversary. We threw a pretty big celebration for that. Seeing people come to that and hearing them sharing their stories and little glimpses of their life and what Ocean Odyssey’s meant to them. Every time you get tired or second-guess yourself, it’s a story from somebody that comes through that just completely fills you up with all kinds of reasons to keep on keeping at it.

What’s different about the workforce today compared with a decade ago? 

We’ve had wonderful people throughout the entire history. I’m a little closer with the workforce here today because I was cutting my teeth as a young, not-so-great leader in this business at the same time as some of the crew that are here today. They’ve helped me along the way, and now I realize how important it is for me to help them along the way, too. Straight out of college, I was all energy, and I would try to cook a thousand miles an hour. If people could keep up, I’d be like, “Wow, that person’s great.” But now I just see this willingness to learn, and really great leadership qualities in young crewmembers that have expressed their interest to grow their role within the company. 

I keep referring to family, but it’s really true. The people you work with in this town, you’re connected in so many different ways. We’re here now, and we’re focusing on service every afternoon, every dinner. There are all these other things happening, too, and the connection with all these people is just phenomenal.

Tell me about your leadership style.

The way I try to look at it is, “How can I help somebody do this task better right now? Do I need to even be involved? Do they want me to be?” It’s absolutely like a coach to a certain extent. Then, every once in a while, you’re on the sidelines coaching, and you’ve got to hop in based on what’s happening that day. You also need to have respect for these crewmembers that you’re working with to share the things that you didn’t do well. I try to learn things like a bowling ball and just keep going. But then, share all the stories of, “Hey, don’t do this this way,” and then tell them how I messed up. And that helps. When you can tell people, “Hey, I messed this up, and used to do it this way,” and you actually share that story with them, that sticks. They realize, “Hey, this person’s trying to help me develop, not just bossing me around and telling me what to do.” 

Over the last few years, you’ve been using more local providers. Are customers more attuned to where their food is coming from these days? 

Since we were a manufacturer before we were a restaurant, the appreciation for the product was instilled in us. The customer base really enjoys that. And we’ve tried to communicate that more on our menu. We’re proud of it, so we wanted people to know about it as soon as they sat down without hitting them over the head with it. We don’t name every single thing on the menu, per se, but if anybody’s interested in knowing more about it we’re certainly happy to talk about it.

What makes it hard to be successful in the business? 

There’s a lot to consider, and it can change drastically based on what part of the country or state you’re in, the population size and all that fun stuff. The fact is there’s always room for a great product. I don’t think a lot of people necessarily are aware of how much it costs to run a restaurant. Having the parking lot packed on the weekends is a great and necessary thing, but if the clock is ticking there’s an expense happening whether you like it or not. It’s truly a business where almost every sector of the business is related to it. There’s the finance part of it, there’s the technology part of it, there’s the labor market part of it, there’s the understanding of law part of it, agriculture, you name it. Every sector of commerce and of business as we know it is connected somehow within the restaurant business. It’s a whole lot more than just saying, “Hey, I’ve got these great recipes, let’s get this thing going.”

Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success. Contact him at [email protected].

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