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Foodservice Forum: The Crab’s Claw Inn’s commitment to Jersey Fresh starts at its front door

by Christina DiMartino | May 24, 2011

Craig Korb, executive chef of The Crab's Claw Inn in Lavallette, NJ, is a self-proclaimed "Jersey Fresh" fanatic."

New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon presented a citation from his office to Sam Hammer and Louise Hammer, owners of The Crab’s Claw Inn, congratulating them on their Jersey Fresh initiative. (Photos courtesy of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture)

"We are definitely major supporters of the Jersey Fresh program," Chef Korb told The Produce News. "This September we will host the second - of what we hope will become annual - Jersey Fresh wine dinner. The menu is 90 percent Jersey seafood, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and wines."

The restaurant hosted the first Jersey Fresh wine dinner in September 2010. Among the special guests were Scott Ell, president of the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture; Paul Hlubik, New Jersey executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency; Troy Joshua, director of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service; Douglas H. Fischer, New Jersey's secretary of agriculture; Joseph Atchison, marketing specialist for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture; and Al Murray, New Jersey's assistant secretary of agriculture.

The menu for the wine dinner was just as "New Jersey" as was the guest list. Almost everything on it was produced in the state, including the squash used to make the Butternut squash soup; the arugula, green apple and shaved fennel salad; and the duck breast, served with cauliflower puree, pickled beets and chive oil.

New Jersey farmers, including Silveri Produce, which supplied the fresh Garden State produce, were also honored on the dinner menu. And even the wines were produced at New Jersey vineyards.

"It was a proud moment when we were certified as a Jersey Fresh restaurant at the dinner," said Chef Korb. "The logo is printed on our menu, and a 'Jersey Fresh' banner adorns the front of our building. We were presented with a plaque during a presentation about the importance of promoting Jersey products."

Husband and wife Sam and Louise Hammer own The Crab's Claw Inn; they are Chef Korb's father-in-law and mother-in-law.

"I married the bosses' daughter, Shannon, in the proverbial and literal sense," he said. "I started working for Sam and Louise in 1994, when I was still in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. After graduating [with an associate's degree in culinary art and a bachelor's degree in foodservice], I moved to California. Three years later, I moved back east to New Jersey and I went back to work for them."

Shannon was a French teacher when Chef Korb rejoined The Crab's Claw Inn, but she now works at the restaurant in administration, hosting and filling in wherever else she's needed. Chef Korb knew her parents before he met her.

"Sam and Louise often jokingly say that they loved me before my wife did," he added. "We married in 2003, and we now have two children: Marley, who is 5, and Lucy, age 2."

The Hammers also have a son, Sam Jr., who is a professional surfer. He also works at the restaurant during his down time.

The Crab's Claw Inn hosts numerous other special event dinners throughout the year, including its annual celebration of its birthday on the first Monday of every May. This year marked the restaurant's 32nd anniversary dinner.

Sam Hammer, co-owner of The Crab’s Claw Inn, and Craig Korb, executive chef of The Crab’s Claw Inn, with Joe Atchison, marketing specialist for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, and Al Murray, New Jersey’s assistant secretary of agriculture.

"We have quite a birthday party every year," said Chef Korb. "We roll back the prices on our menu to what they were in 1979. Steak and lobster tails, king crab legs, shrimp dinners and many other items are rolled back to $9.99. We even bring back what was our traditional liverwurst sandwich with onion for 99 cents. It's the only time of the year that we offer it, but it was a staple when the restaurant first opened, and we try to make the menu as original as possible. People come back for it still today."

The Crab's Claw Inn serves upwards of 1,600 dinners every year on its birthday celebration. Chef Korb said that some people come in at 9 a.m. and take a seat at the bar. They start eating and they stay all day long, eating their fill. The staff starts early in the morning, and "I don't roll out of the restaurant until 12:30 at night," he added.

In the early 1970s, Sam and Louise Hammer worked at another restaurant just down the street from The Crab's Claw Inn, running the restaurant part of the bar and eatery. The Lavallette Hotel, which is now The Crab's Claw Inn, went up for sale, and the couple bought it. They closed the hotel portion, converting it into a restaurant and bar. The building is historically important to Lavallette as it is one of the older structures in town.

The restaurant has always held firm to its commitment to serve only the freshest possible food, and buying locally grown is nothing new to it.

"We use a lot of New Jersey asparagus," said Chef Korb. "Our grilled swordfish with hollandaise, crab and asparagus is one of our most popular dishes. I also use a ton of Jersey corn. We buy this from Scott Ellis of Ellis Farms in Yardville, who is also the president of the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture. We also do a bit of barbecue, like pulled pork, and serve it with sweet corn and coleslaw. Silveri Produce in Towns River is our primary source for produce, however. The company does a lot of work with local farmers."

Chef Korb also likes to meet with local farmers. This summer he plans to "dial in" with different New Jersey farmers to find out what they are harvesting and when so he can support them on the restaurant's menu.

"I also use a lot of zucchini, primarily in stirfry dishes," he said. "Seafood Paris is a mushroom and zucchini stirfry with shrimp, scallops and cream. When I can get good Jersey heirloom tomatoes, I'll use them for mozzarella and tomato salads and other specialty dishes."

He continued, "Jersey blueberries are a popular breakfast item for us. We make blueberry pancakes. We also make strawberry pancakes when Jersey has supplies. I plan to experiment with Jersey peaches this year. I want to grill them and incorporate them into some menu items."

The Crab's Claw Inn is a casual family dining experience. It seats about 200 in the inside and on the patio that is fully open in the summer. It employs between 60 and 125 people, depending on the season.

Mr. Hammer retired from line cooking some time ago, and he now does more managerial work. He is also the head fish cutter. He personally goes to the local fish purveyor two to three times per week to pick out the freshest fish. He takes it back to the restaurant and cuts it himself to insure that patrons get only the highest quality.

Mrs. Hammer also continues to work in the restaurant today, primarily in the office handling bookkeeping.

"Being a shore area restaurant - just one block from the beach - we are known for our seafood," said Chef Korb. "Our weekly specials, which usually include three to four appetizers and four to five entrees, focus on seafood, although we do offer meat as well."

The Crab's Claw Inn's signature dishes include shrimp Albano, a shrimp and penne pasta dish with vodka sauce, tomatoes and broccoli. Its most popular soup is creamy crab chowder, which Chef Korb said is spicy, creamy and loaded with chunks of crabmeat.

"We get a big local crowd year round, and we get a lot of college students when they're out of school for the summer," he said. "They like some of our newer dishes, like our tuna nachos appetizer, and our salads, such as grilled shrimp over greens and tomatoes."

He continued, "We're also well known for our wine list. My father-in-law always features one wine by the glass that is produced in New Jersey. The large green 'Jersey Fresh' banner on the front of our building is testament to our commitment to producers in the state. When the [New Jersey] Department of Agriculture came with it, they set up a huge wagon, like an old-fashioned vegetable cart, and filled it to overflowing with fruits and vegetables for the promotion. About 70 people from the department of agriculture, producers and others attended a dinner for the event."

Chef Korb concluded, "We're really proud of our dedication to New Jersey, and we know that the outstanding food products produced here contributes to The Crab's Claw Inn's longevity and its success."

Craig Korb, executive chef of The Crab’s Claw Inn, with New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher.