Clawing for success: Investment banker becomes stone-crab deliveryman

How’s this for a Plan B?

Two stone-crab seasons ago, investment banker Roger Duarte started thinking about other options. The 25-year-old had been working on mergers and acquisitions in Latin America and was watching deals in Miami get frozen and friends in New York get laid off.

So he started formulating a way out with a business based on one of his favorite foods: stone crabs. This year, George Stone Crab is gearing up for its first full season delivering fresh stone crabs to homes throughout Miami and in several countries in Latin America.

“It’s definitely a roller coaster ? you don’t have a constant cash flow or a bonus at the end of the year,” said Duarte, who grew up in Mexico and Key Biscayne, Fla. “But this is my baby.”

Stone-crab season began last week and ends May 15. For Duarte, that means the past week has been spent readying his warehouse space near the Miami River to receive stone crabs. He’ll add temporary workers based on need, but right now the company is run by Duarte with the help of four others.

Orders are taken via the company’s website ? ? where prices range from about $15.95 per pound for medium claws to $34.95 per pound for the colossal claws. The crabs come pre-cracked, in a row, on ice, arranged neatly by Duarte with mustard sauce, lemons, and a packet of hand wipes tucked alongside the seafood.

He makes almost all the South Florida deliveries himself, in a sky blue Mini Cooper decked out with the company name and giant stone-crab claws.

Last year, Duarte developed a base of about 125 clients. Business spread through word-of-mouth, and on average, monthly revenue ranged from $38,000 to $54,000 a month.

Duarte works with local partners in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela for home delivery there.

Duarte knows it’s a niche client base outside of the United States ? mostly people who have second homes here, where they developed their taste for stone crabs ? but he also wants to expand to Spain, Brazil, and Colombia, and is in talks with a Kuwaiti business, too.

Miami Beach resident Sam Jacobson started ordering from George Stone Crab last year. Jacobson, 83, said he usually orders around 10 pounds or so ? depending on how much of the family is around for dinner.

Jacobson likes the convenience but said the service Duarte offers, like always being on time, stands out.

“I don’t eat it every day ? maybe once or twice a week,” said Jacobson, who describes himself as semi-retired from the food business. “His delivery and product are more than outstanding.”

Gourmet food is far more resilient than other luxury items right now, said Milton Pedraza ? CEO of the New York-based Luxury Institute, a research consultancy ? who said that high-end consumers are also looking for value as much as others in this economy.

Pedraza said this was still a great time to start a luxury business if the business outperforms its competition.

“The service has to be impeccable,” he said.

Stephen Sawitz, fourth-generation owner of the famed Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, said the family had thought in the past about going into home delivery ? but decided it wasn’t worth it.

“We thought about it, but you have to do a lot of driving,” said Sawitz, who is also the chief operating officer for Joe’s, and added that the restaurant has plenty of free parking for customers who want to do takeout business.

“If somebody calls Joe’s and says can you deliver we’ll put it in a taxi and send it to them,” Sawitz added.

Duarte doesn’t believe he’s competing with a place like Joe’s for customers, saying that it’s a different market.

In fact, his original business plan was to sell tilapia to restaurants. But customers wanted a one-stop seafood shop, he said, and he decided to go to the opposite end of the market and focus on stone crabs and home delivery. In addition to stone crabs, he also sells lobster, clams and key lime pies.

“Our goal and our business model is home delivery for stone crabs ? for homes, yachts, a party, for Mother’s Day,” Duarte said.

He’s also unfazed by starting up a business in this economy: On the contrary, he thinks it can only make his company better.

“If a small business takes off in this market ? there’s only up,” he said.

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.