By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It was Saturday night at The Crazy Crab Chicago. Lots of people were hungry for seafood, but they had to wait over an hour to get a table. The line was out the door, and it was 10 p.m. closing time. The waiting customers weren’t crabby, but thing got crazy. The owner, Martin Luther King was busy keeping the place together.
He has a famous name and now a popular seafood restaurant has become King’s own movement – sort of.
It was March madness at The Crazy Crab Chicago in Evergreen Park. But the craziness really began five months ago when King’s seafood eatery flung open its doors to serve fresh crustaceans smothered with a delicious seasoning called The Trifecta. Forget about a plate, the food is packed in a large plastic bag. What’s inside of it has everyone talking and coming back for more. It’s a runaway hit that has made The Crazy Crab Chicago an overnight sensation.
Located at 9204 S. Western Avenue, The Crazy Crab Chicago is wedged between a Firehouse Subs eatery and a Hair Cuttery. It sits three blocks north of the former Evergreen Plaza mall, which was torn down in 2015.
What started out as an unknown 1,952 square-foot eatery has quickly morphed into a flourishing seafood hangout that’s drawing customers from as far away as Naperville. It’s been like this ever since The Crazy Crab Chicago opened last October.
The restaurant seats 92 people, but on many nights, the place is full to capacity. On Fridays, evenings and weekends, the crowds are so large that customers are willing to wait as long as an hour and half to get their claws on seafood favorites such as snow crab and jumbo shrimp.
While it could take years to build a customer base for many new businesses, The Crazy Crab Chicago has developed King a loyal following much like the famous civil rights leader he was named after. But the owner of The Crazy Crab Chicago is a meticulous, seasoned entrepreneur and former lawyer who has owned dozens of U.S. Cellular and Verizon stores and a score of Burger King franchise restaurants.
Now, King runs The Crazy Crab Chicago like a bonafide professional executive. But this venture is special to King. It’s the first and only one of its kind that’s Black-owned and is easily accessible to people of color, unlike Red Lobster, a highly popular restaurant chain where Blacks for decades have traveled in droves to predominately white neighborhoods and suburbs just to eat seafood.
King said the problem has always bothered him so he decided to do something about it.
“We thought it would be great to bring a seafood restaurant to the South Side of Chicago,” King said. “There are not many independent, Black owned sit-down restaurants on the South Side. We wanted a family-friendly restaurant and the hook was seafood. People come to relax and enjoy conversation and have a good time. We have to provide an environment that makes them comfortable, where there’s laughter and good food.”
Before King conquered with The Crazy Crab Chicago, he was a successful businessman who owned 26 U.S. Cellular stores in Chicago and St. Louis. In 2008, he sold all of them. In 2009, King owned 22 Burger King franchise restaurants in Des Moines, Iowa. In 2013, he sold those too after realizing the Whopper was lagging behind other fast food restaurants. King said he’s a former owner of Park 52, the Hyde Park restaurant that was among several high-end eateries that closed in 2013, during the Great Recession.
“We wanted a family-friendly restaurant on the South Side of Chicago and the hook was seafood,” King said.
King said he conceived the idea of The Crazy Crab Chicago after eating at the Crab Hut in San Diego in 2014 with his wife Cindy. It’s another family-owned restaurant that opened in 2007. The king crab legs, crawfish and lobster claws in a bag inspired King to open his version of the seafood joint on Chicago’s South Side.
One visit to The Angry Crab Chicago gave King the idea of eating crustaceans out of bag. But King’s bag of goodies comes with an addictive seasoning called the Trifecta. King said he developed the recipe with Lisa Phelps, former Director of the test kitchen at Pampered Chef. The Trifecta includes a powerful blend of Lemon Pepper, Garlic Pepper, and Cajun Spices. The seasoning puts King’s seafood delicacies over the top and the spices emit an aroma that often wafts into the restaurant’s parking lot.
In a thick plastic bag, crab legs, jumbo shrimp, corn on the cob, boiled red potatoes or any crustaceans the customer likes are all soaked in the Trifecta sauce. The result is a succulent, messy combination that leaves one’s fingers covered with herbs and spices.
Customers can’t get enough of it. Many leave with takeout orders of seafood smothered in the Trifecta seasoning.
King said The Crazy Crab Chicago’s fried catfish and fried calamari are also popular dishes, but the crustaceans with the Trifecta sauce are by far his best sellers.
Armed with an iPad that had the latest sales figures, King said the most popular item, Snow Crab, sells on average 20,000 pounds weekly. The second highest grossing dish is shrimp, which King says he sells 19,000 pounds per week. King only serves seafood and there are no plans to add soul food to the menu. King said with his eatery flourishing, he prefers to stay focused on doing one thing excellently.
He said 32,000 customers have eaten at The Crazy Crab Chicago since it opened its doors. Open every day from 12 noon to 10 p.m., King said many of his customers have become regulars. To keep up with the eatery’s high volume, King says he employs a staff of 35. King said he works 60 to 70 hours a week.
A reporter from the Crusader frequented the restaurant six times. On each occasion, the place was humming and full to capacity. Most of the customers wore bibs and gobbled up crustaceans with the signature Trifecta seasoning. On Sunday, the church crowd packed the place dressed to the nines. The night before the wait for a table was over an hour, while the wait staff was hustling from table to table trying to keep pace with fresh orders.
One of them was waitress Tanesha Adams. “It’s crazy. The line was out the door and it was closing time (10 p.m.),” she said. “I came in at 5 p.m. and it was busy non-stop.”
Customers at Crazy Crab Chicago come from all over, from West Pullman to Naperville. Lisa Alexander, from Chicago, said when her girlfriends from California fly into town she takes them to The Crazy Crab Chicago. As for Alexander, she said she frequents the eatery at least once a week.
The Trifecta is so good. I get everything, but the snow crab and shrimp are my favorites,” she said.
King said most of his customers are the mature crowd, whose ages range from 50 to 75, but young patrons are catching on. During one visit by this reporter on a Sunday, many of the customers seemed to be in their 30s. Some come on Monday even- ings where karaoke is held to lively crowds. Two 50-inch screens flank both sides of the room. During Mardi Gras in February, King held a community celebration in the parking lot.
The Crazy Crab Chicago has been generating plenty of buzz on the social scene. Already, the eatery has been voted one of the Top 24 Seafood Restaurants by Eatery Chicago, a popular website for the city’s food lovers. In addition, The Crazy Crab Chicago has been featured on Windy City Live, WLS ABC 7 Chicago and Fox 32 Chicago.
With the success of The Crazy Crab Chicago, King said he plans to open similar eateries in the South Loop and major U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Indianapolis, and Memphis. He said Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction, Navy Pier, has approached him about opening a Crazy Crab Chicago there.
King said he was not surprised by the quick success of his restaurant. “I thought, would they like the food?” he said. I was pretty confident, but I was a little anxious.”