On a rainy day in 2020, twin sisters who lost their restaurant jobs to the COVID pandemic got a craving for steamed blue crabs. The rest of the story illustrates what the power of positive thinking, desire and courage can do.
“We really wanted crabs. We eat crabs five times a week. We love them so much,” says LaShone Middleton. She and her sister, RaeShawn, had moved back to their mom’s house. The idea for starting a business came to them while sitting in their bedroom. LaShone describes the moment. “It was raining, and we were like, ‘I really want crabs, but I don’t feel like leaving the house to get them. I wonder if anyone delivers.’”
Acting on Divine Inspiration
Blue crabs from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay are the sisters’ favorite food. They grew up eating them with family and friends. They turned that love into R&L Crab Co., a service that delivers steamed or live crabs from a ghost kitchen to a customer’s door. “We always knew we were going to have a business of some sort. I just feel like this business idea was handed to us, and I feel like God gave it to us,” LaShone says.
The twins already knew how to prepare live blue crabs because they’d been cooking them for years. “We’ve been perfecting our own recipe for a while because we knew what we liked to taste. We would always practice making our own crabs, and we used a particular beer,” says RaeShawn.
Nevertheless, the thought of becoming first-time business owners in the middle of a pandemic seemed overwhelming until the Middletons talked it over with the owner of their favorite seafood brunch spot. “He ended up telling us to just do it. He said if you sit down and think all day about an idea, you’re never really going to do it. But if you just get up and do it, you’ll learn as you go,” says LaShone.
R&L Crab officially launched on August 6, 2020. The sisters started by distributing flyers in their neighborhood. They had not expected to get any orders on that day. But they got their first customer when a next-door neighbor ordered a dozen cooked crabs from the budding entrepreneurs. “We hadn’t thought anything through, so we gave her a price of $30 for large males,” says RaeShawn. “In comparison now, our large males are like $85 a dozen. We had no idea what things cost, so she got a crazy first-time deal.”
That lesson in pricing and making a profit was one of many the Middletons learned by acting on their idea. The sisters had already worked in restaurants as cooks for more than seven years. Both had taken jobs as servers at Michelin Guide restaurants in Washington, D.C., before the coronavirus crisis left them unemployed. LaShone was at Bresca and RaeShawn waited tables at Cranes.
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The cooked-to-order and live crab delivery business began to catch on after the twins’ aunt, Lauren Middleton, blasted social media posts about R&L Crab Co., LLC. “In the beginning, sales were $1,000, and now we’re a six-figure business,” says RaeShawn. LaShone adds that what began as a Friday, Saturday and Sunday operation the first month grew considerably in one year. “We probably had 10 or 20 customers the whole month. Now, we do roughly 25 or 30 a day, or on a holiday, we can do 50 to 60 orders in a small ghost kitchen.”
Mom’s Kitchen to Commercial Cooking
Support from family and friends kept R&L Crab’s owners and CEOs from being overcome with stress in those first months. Their mother, Johnetta Lassiter and other supporters helped with the cooking and delivery. When the operation outgrew their mom’s kitchen, the Middletons got help from Marc Dixon, a chef mentor and now business partner. “He would let us use his kitchen, and that was really helpful. That’s when we started getting publicity from ABC and NPR. That’s when we needed to get something more secure,” says LaShone.
R&L Crab moved operations from Maryland to D.C. when the Mess Hall, a culinary incubator, offered the professionally-trained chefs commercial kitchen space. By then, their appearances on WJLA-TV, National Public Radio and “The Kelly Clarkson Show” had increased demand for their crabs along with requirements for staying in business. “It was probably by far one of the hardest challenges we’ve ever faced in our entire lives. But it’s been a great challenge. When you start a business, you never really know everything you have to do. You kind of learn as you go,” RaeShawn says. “Every time you learn something, you’ll get another piece of mail telling you that you have to do something else. We learned something every single day,” she adds.
The staff at the Mess Hall helped LaShone and RaeShawn deal with the additional regulations that came with operating a ghost kitchen. The extra space allowed them to offer pickup in addition to delivery Wednesday through Sunday. They also expanded their menu to include crab legs, shrimp and non-seafood options and sides. The chicken sandwiches, hushpuppies, honey jalapeno cornbread and Old Bay fries are all made in-house by the twins, a cook and Dixon, R&L Crab’s chief operating officer and co-owner. “Marc brought a lot to the table as a partner,” says RaeShawn. “Everything wasn’t always perfect in the beginning. But we have a system now because we failed a lot.” The system provides online ordering from the company’s website and through third-party delivery options such as Uber Eats and DoorDash.
Cultivating Culinary Connections
The success of R&L Crab after just over a year in business made it possible for the Middletons to work on returning to Maryland with a second takeout and delivery operation in Columbia. Dixon will oversee the opening of that location early next year. The owners’ current ghost kitchen at the Mess Hall in Northeast D.C. delivers to neighborhoods within 15 miles or 35 minutes. “We’ve been desperate to get back to the Maryland area, so we can serve our original customers. That’s why we brought on Marc,” says RaeShawn. “He will be our operating officer overseeing the opening of all of our other locations.”
The two soon-to-be 31-year-old entrepreneurs are making the most of a culinary connection that dates back to their time as 15-year-old students at Reservoir High School in Fulton, Maryland. They met Dixon while doing an off-campus internship at the restaurant where he worked as a chef. “After we graduated high school, Marc went on to open his own restaurant, Bistro Blanc. That’s where we worked the next two years. He trained us a little more,” LaShone says.
Both sisters obtained culinary degrees from Johnson & Wales University. They are in the process of building a team to advance their plans for multiple, year-round locations of R&L Crab. “We’re trying to bring in one or two more cooks. Right now, we have three or four drivers,” says RaeShawn. “All together, we have less than 10 employees for the D.C. location. Once we open in Columbia, we’ll probably double that number.”
LaShone lists rising crab prices and hiring reliable employees among the most difficult challenges the business continues to face. “I thought it would be easier to hire once everything opened and they stopped the unemployment. But it’s actually a lot harder. The drivers stop showing up, and you just never hear from them again. The cooks constantly make excuses about not coming in,” she says.
Raising enough capital for expansion is another hurdle the twins hope to overcome. They started R&L Crab with a few small investments from relatives and friends. A GoFundMe page has brought in a little more than $2,000. LaShone calls the efforts to get funding frustrating. “Rae and I have exceptional credit and no debts and still can’t get a personal loan. The banks say you have to be self-employed for two years to even get a business loan.”
Inspired by Independence
The financial challenges are not stopping the Middletons from pushing forward. Their six-figure business is succeeding well enough for the CEOs to pay their 13-year-old brother, Jaevon Lassiter, $50 a week to manage the company’s Tick Tock account. RaeShawn expresses how thankful they are for the support received. “Our grandmother, mom and aunt gave us some money. It was $300 that bought our first bushel. Our mom and little brother helped us cook. We’ve really had a lot of people help and support us. We just have a really great support system; I’ve got to say that.”
Spiritual strength anchors the foundation of the resources LaShone and RaeShawn rely on to stay focused, positive and resilient. “We know 100 percent that we wouldn’t be where we are without spirituality. We’re into meditation and manifestation.”
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The first-time business owners hope to encourage other people to act on entrepreneurial ideas and not turn back. The twins’ former employers offered them the chance to return to their old jobs. “I had to tell them I wasn’t coming back. It was probably the hardest decision of my life because it was really scary. You’re basically betting on yourself,” says LaShone. Neither sister believes they will work for someone else again. “You can work your butt off for someone else, or you work your butt off for yourself. This has been the hardest journey of our lives, but I wouldn’t change anything,” RaeShawn says.
What makes R&L Crab’s founders so sure about their future? It is the joy and inspiration they get from being independent business owners. “From the moment that we started working for ourselves, I’ve been so fulfilled. Even though it’s been really hard, it’s been the most fulfilling thing we’ve ever done,” says LaShone. “I’m always very happy, and I think being happy fulfills me so much.”
The chefs also find their personal growth rewarding. “We learned how to communicate better with people. I love our team. My sister, Marc and I have grown really close. Relationships are getting stronger,” says RaeShawn. “I’m really the happiest I’ve been in my entire life, even with it being hard.”