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Two Friends Left Steady Paychecks, 401(k)s and Bet on Themselves. Today They Run a $1M Business.

Seven years ago, two friends had the idea to open a small seafood restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. Fifi Bell Clanton and Gwendolyn Niles left their jobs in the entertainment business and opened The Crabby Shack. Since then, the pair have opened a second location at a sports arena, introduced frozen takeout entrees, and have started nationwide deliveries.

On top of the brand expansion, by 2019 The Crabby Shack had revenues of more than $1 million, having experienced a four-year growth rate of 52.65 percent, according to Fortune Magazine.

Crabby Shack
Fifi Bell Clanton and Gwendolyn Niles (Photo courtesy of The Crabby Shack)

“Since we opened in 2014, we have made some additions to the menu and removed some items that weren’t working for us. The best addition has been our Lobster Roll, which is a half crab, half lobster sandwich. We have also expanded into the Barclays Center, which is very exciting for us,” Niles told Finurah in a recent interview. The Barclays Center is home of the NBA team the Brooklyn Nets.

The menu at The Crabby Shack is more than mouthwatering; the seafood offerings have made this Brooklyn eatery a must for local seafood lovers. The menu includes: Dungeness crab, Alaskan snow crab legs, crab mac & cheese, crab cake sliders, lobster roll, lobster roll (half crab/half lobster). Its best-seller is its Famous Crab Roll — snow crab meat tossed in garlic butter sauce on a toasted Martin’s bun.

The Black-owned establishment has emerged from the COVID pandemic as a survivor while many other NYC dining spots have folded. The restaurants also completed renovations in August.

Expansion Plans

The restaurant has taken its tasty crustacean creations nationwide.

“We have started shipping nationally in 2021 through the site Goldbelly. We are very excited about expanding the brand that way. We want someone in Boise, Idaho, to be able to experience our delicious food,” Niles said. “We are also giving the restaurant a facelift and adding some new features. We will have grab-and-go items available in our new freezer and refrigerated section. Last but not least, we will be looking to sell our seasonings and sauces in the retail sector.”

In September, The Crabby Shack began offering frozen “Crabioli,” shrimp ravioli, and lobster tortellini at their Brooklyn location for customer to to prepare themselves. And it started selling nationwide on Goldbelly, a curated online marketplace for regional and artisanal foods crafted.

Pandemic Survival

Despite the business’s continued growth, as with most restaurants, The Crabby Shack faced some struggles during the pandemic.

“We struggled with the decision to stay open during the pandemic. We were scared about getting ill ourselves and keeping our staff and customers safe. We decided to remain open and install some safety measures. We also had to modify our business model,” explained Niles. “Dining in was no longer an option in 2020, so we hired more delivery people, increased the number of front of house staff, and bottled our drinks. We were at the mercy of third-party delivery services, but thankfully the demand was there. For a while, we were the only crab spot open.”

To continue to lure in patrons, the partners also incorporated music, offering jazz nights of live music for people to dine by.

Looking Back at the Beginning

Clanton and Niles’s instincts have always paid off. The two moms took the risk and quit successful and lucrative 9-to-5 jobs to open up a seafood restaurant. Niles had been a longtime record company exec who worked with Sean “Diddy” Combs, the late hip-hop artist Notorious B.I.G., and Grammy-winning singers Faith Evans and Janelle Monae for 20 years in artists and repertoire at Bad Boy Entertainment.

Bell had been a fashion stylist for entertainment personalities such as Alicia Keys, singer Jackie Evancho, The Cheetah Girls, and Wyclef Jean.

Bell came up with the idea to pursue the passion project of opening a seafood venue and approached her friend Niles with her business idea.

“I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I knew at some point I would leave the steady paycheck and the 401(k) for betting on myself and being in control of my destiny. Fifi had similar goals and said that on her 40th birthday, she was going to work for herself with a tangible business, and we officially opened on her 40th,” recalled Niles.

The Crabby Shack opened its doors in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, seven years ago.

Niles says it’s all been worth it despite the highs and lows of entrepreneurship and running a restaurant. “The most exciting part of running the Crabby Shack is that the dreams are endless. We are constantly thinking of ways to better our business and expand. That’s the gift of being an entrepreneur. We can ride this until the wheels come off!” Niles shared.

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