From the docks of San Francisco to the streets of Clovis, Barry Stillwell delivers live Dungeness Crab every week at they year-round Saturday Farmers Market in Old Town Clovis.
“I’m getting really good feedback,” Stillwell said. “I’ve been selling out every Saturday since I started. You can always get crab, and it’s good, but there’s nothing like live crab.”
Stillwell started his business, Clovis Clipper Crab Co., last fall, although he never planned to open a business after retirement. It all began with the purchase of 1936 wood fishing boat, the Nina Tarantino, that has roots back to the Tarantino family of Tarantino’s Restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.
A Clovis resident since 1988, Stillwell spent the last 10 years of his career in San Francisco but always came back to his home in Clovis every weekend. However, after purchasing the boat, he found himself working on it three to four days a week.
While spending time on the Nina Tarantino in the San Francisco Harbor, he began to meet the local fisherman and learn about their craft. He was taught how to cook crab, what to look for, and how to keep crab alive.
“I was fortunate enough to have really good people who took me in and taught me how to keep up my old boat and how the fish industry works,” Stillwell said.
On the weekends, Stillwell would bring crab to his friends in Clovis and said they “loved it.” One day one of those friends asked why he wasn’t selling the crabs, and it was then that the idea for Clovis Clipper Crab Co. was born.
Although Stillwell has all the licenses and permits that allow him to fish for crab, he said his 78-year-old boat could not keep up with the demand. Instead, he purchases crab from his friends and sometimes even goes out fishing with them.
“I fill in with them and act as a deck hand,” Stillwell said. “I don’t ask them to pay me, because I don’t want to take work away from a deck hand. I’ve got my little business and that’s fun. I love it out there, rocking and rolling. We (recently) came in right before a storm, and we saw it coming, the swells are coming up, and it’s exciting. It’s dangerous, but these guys know what they’re doing. They know when to go and when not to go.”
The fishermen drop big metal pots to the bottom of the ocean that contain smelly, oily fish. The ocean current catches that oil and lures crab into the traps. All female crabs and crabs under five inches are thrown back into the ocean, but the rest are sent to the wholesalers.
Stillwell picks up his load - which at this time is around 30 crabs - from his friends at Fisherman’s Wharf early Friday morning.
“I’ve known them for so many years, and they’re real good,” Stillwell said. “They pull up to my boat and unload them on it. They (crabs) literally come out of the water that day.”
Stillwell then loads them into ice chests in the back of his Prius, drives them down to his warehouse in Clovis, transfers them into a large, cold, saltwater tank overnight, then drives them to the Saturday Morning Market at Pollasky - just 24 hours after picking them up at the wharf.
The crabs have become so popular that Stillwell says it’s better to call and pre-order to make sure you get the number you want. Stillwell wants to make sure every customer has a good experience, so he always gives them a tutorial on how to cook crab.
“I give them a little step-by-step and tell them they can call me,” he said.
Carole Lester, executive director of Business Organization of Old Town (BOOT), says that Stillwell’s business adds a lot to the Saturday Farmer’s Market and she herself is one of his frequent customers.
“It’s great to have Barry there with his live crab,” she said. “It gives it a whole other element. If you’re into Dungeness Crab, it’s hard to get them this fresh. Some people are a little hesitant about cooking live crab, but its very easy. They’re easy to clean, and they’re very good. It’s worth it.”
Stillwell plans to sell at the Friday Night Farmers Market, also, when it begins again May 8.
Prices for crab fluctuate depending on the season.