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Family continues four generations in crab industry at Graham & Rollins

Things get started early, though not bright, every morning at the Graham & Rollins crab processing plant in Hampton.

Workers arrive to the downtown Hampton facility behind the Virginia Air & Space Center at 1 a.m. to start the task of picking the meat from the crabs, which already have been steamed and cooled.

In a large room lined with metal tables, workers pick up each crab from a large pile, prying off the shells with metal picks. Others workers are sorting through meat that's already been picked and sorting it according to size.

At a station in an adjacent room, more workers take out crabmeat and perform another inspection under a blacklight before putting the pieces in new containers according to size.

The workers have just three hours to complete the process for each batch, from the time they're picked to the time they're packaged and put on ice, in order to keep the crab from becoming the breeding grounds for bacteria and other pathogens and being unsafe for public consumption.

The workers on this shift are done by mid-to-late morning, when many office workers have been on the clock for just a few hours.

"That's what's been going in this room since 1942," said Johnny Graham, who runs the fourth-generation family business with his brother Casey and sister Terri.

(At one point, the company used a machine to pick crabmeat during a time when workers could not keep up with the influx of crabs. The owners found that the machine-picked crabmeat was mid-grade quality, and hand-picking it produced better results, Graham said.)

"The light fixtures have changed, air conditioning has been installed, but we still have the same floor."

Changes in the industry

While the process of picking, packing and preparing crab has changed little, there's plenty that's different since John Graham, Johnny Graham's great-grandfather, started the company almost 75 years ago.

Each of those changes has added challenges to the work that Graham & Rollins does.

What was once a year-round industry is now restricted by the 2008 closing of the winter dredge fishery for the Chesapeake blue crab that prohibits harvest in the winter months, intended by state regulators to help rebuild the dwindling crab population.

Local crabbers also are competing with an influx of blue crab imported from Central and South America that command lower prices than those caught in Virginia or the region, though Graham said the locally caught and distributed crab is what he buys when it's in season.

In addition to a shorter crabbing season, a smaller local supply and competition from foreign markets, the company for more than two decades has relied on foreign workers rather than American ones, many of the latter in Graham's experience, unwilling to take on the seasonal work.

Currently, the company relies on about 70 workers, many from the state of Sinaloa of Mexico, who come on H-2B visas. About 90 percent of the workers come back year after year, Graham said.

For a sense of perspective, Graham & Rollins issued W-2 tax forms to about 900 employees in the late 1980s, that number down to about a dozen today.

The family of Kimberly Rodriguez, 20, came to Virginia from Sinaloa in the 1990s, and her father is now a manager at the company.

Other relatives also have come to the area over the years to work at Graham & Rollins.

"This is a big help for them," said Rodriguez, who helps prepare crabcakes, mixes and dips.

Among her other relatives working at the company is her aunt Silvia Escalante, who sends part of what she earns to her adult children still living in Mexico.

"There's no work there," she said in Spanish. "They don't have enough money."

While Graham said the Mexican workers are hard-working, participating in the program has its drawbacks, with delays in visa processing meaning delays in getting the workers at Graham & Rollins.

In order to have workers in time for the beginning of the crabbing season that started in March, Graham prepared and submitted his H-2B paperwork in November, but the first workers didn't arrive until April or May.

That delay led to a ripple effect that delayed work for those in related industries, from watermen to ice suppliers and others in the chain.

"Families depend on the working waterfront," Graham said. "If they can't pick crabs, they can't go to work, so I'm part of the equation."

Keeping up with the times

With all the uncertainty in the market, Graham's strategy for survival is diversifying the company's income.

Since 1988, they've operated a restaurant along with the crab processing facility, but only within the last five years or so has Graham put in more effort into making the restaurant and adjacent retail store a business priority and marketing those businesses.

The company also has been working with QVC for seven years to sell items like crabcakes, salmon burgers and bacon-wrapped scallops, establishing brand recognition to a national audience.

"We don't have the marketplace like we used to, so we've had to reinvent ourselves," Graham said.

In addition, Graham & Rollins is using equipment that is able to more efficiently extract pieces of crab than previously possible. That crab is minced and used in flavorings, soups, dips and pet food, reducing the amount of waste the company produces.

The company also works with blue crab distributors in countries like Mexico, Colombia and Nicaragua.

While these ventures have made business more robust for the crab processor — the last one standing among about a dozen or so in downtown Hampton during the industry's heyday in the 1970s — Graham & Rollins has experienced its share of ups and downs over the last 15 years.

The combined challenges of the H-2B guest worker program, along with other challenges, have previously led the owners of Graham & Rollins to explore the possibility of selling off the business, but a good crab harvest one year or acquiring a big customer another has helped them hold on.

"You want to be the strongest and the one who can succeed," he said. "Obviously, the obstacles are getting tougher every year."

That willingness to adapt, paired with its dedication to quality and tradition, is an asset for the company, said Terry Williams, a seafood merchandiser with Suffolk-based Sysco Hampton Roads.

Williams has been working with Graham & Rollins for about 15 years, with Sysco purchasing its crabmeat from the Hampton processor.

"They're passionate about their business," Williams said. "They're passionate about their customers. They're passionate about what they do. People love their product."

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