"There's not much of a profit in crabs these day," said Piera, who said crab houses make their money on beverage sales. "That's what we're open for — beer, wine and soda."
One of the few crab houses to keep a schedule that matched up with Maryland's crab season was the well-remembered Obrycki's. But the restaurant's co-owner Rob Cernak said the annual winter closing had less to do with supply than his customers' expectations.
"One of the reasons we were seasonal is because people expected us to be seasonal," Cernak said. When his family tried to stay open past its customary late-fall closing date, customers disapproved.
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"We lost less money by closing in the winter than by staying open," said Cernak, who said he'd stay open year round if he were starting out fresh. "You'd have to," he said. Cernak said he misses interacting with customers at the old Fells Point restaurant but not worrying from day to day about the availability of crabs. "I don't miss that part of the business one bit," Cernak said.
For the short term, Maryland crabbers may be fetching high prices for their small hauls. In Virginia, where the season started earlier than Maryland's, crabbers are getting per-bushel prices of $135 for male crabs. "The price is the highest I've seen in five years," said Frost, of Maryland Crabs Delivered.
Normal wholesale prices this time of year, Frost said, are $85 for males. After Labor Day, when the harvest peaks and demand slacks off, the prices fall to as little as $35.
But most Marylanders won't notice if Maryland's crab's season starts late or if prices fluctuate wildly.
"The price of crab cake is not going to be influenced by a slow start to Maryland crab season," said DNR's Vilnit.
Until then, prices for hard crabs will do what they typically do, said Vilnit — they start high in the spring and get lower, except for a spike around the summer holidays. "Prices are at their lowest point in September and October when crabs are at their best quality," Vilnit said.
"We'd love to have people wait for Maryland crabs," said Richard Young, owner of Coveside Crabs in Dundalk. "They're the best crabs, hands down."