It's 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve day, and the Fish Market has only been open for an hour, but within that time manager Randy Haake and his crew have cooked and cracked more crabs than they can count.
"We've already sold pounds of crab, many from orders placed in advance," said Haake as he hauls a customer's cooler full of ice and 10 cooked and cracked crabs to her car in the parking lot. "We've had a steady stream of people here since we first opened this morning, and I anticipate sales should reach more than 10 grand by the time we close at 6 p.m."
It's true that Christmas Eve day is the biggest business day of the year for the tiny seafood store that sits in the coveted corner at Johnson Pier in Princeton Harbor. The Princeton Seafood Company restaurant began taking orders for the market's Dec. 24th pick-up around Thanksgiving time, and Haake started cooking the crabs today at 4 a.m.
"We've got so much crab, I don't think we'll run out but you never know. Every year it seems more people want to have crab for their Christmas dinners," he said. "The line started to form this morning at 7 a.m."
By 9:30 a.m. the line outside the fish market winds down the sidewalk and is at least 30 people deep. Customers — sporting mittens and hats, many of them with coffee mugs in hand and dogs on leashes — wait in line, chatting congenially with each other in the good graces of the holiday spirit, completely unfazed by the long wait ahead of them.
"It's really the 8th wonder of the world," said owner Marty Botham of El Granada. "People will wait in line for an hour and a half no problem, so excited about getting crab for their Christmas dinners. We have one guy who's been coming for 15 years with his son. They'll get here at 6:30 a.m. to be the first in line."
Botham drags outside a large container full of live crab, their pointy sharp claws poking out of air holes. The line of onlookers watch with interest as Botham digs into the container and drops the crabs one by one into the vat of boiling water.
"We can fit up to 70 crabs in here," he said.
A small table with complimentary coffee is set up in front of his operation. Botham's daughter will show up later and dole out free clam chowder and calamari to keep the customers happy.
Nina Westerlund of El Granada walked down from her house and bought two crabs for her Christmas Eve dinner.
"Every year we have seafood Christmas Eve," she said. "My 89-year-old mom and I don't want to do any cooking this year so this was the perfect thing — cooked, cracked crab — to get for our dinner tonight."
A crab feast on Christmas Eve is a family tradition for Ed Bohnert, who drove over from Burlingame early this morning to buy 12 crabs. "We've having nine people tonight for dinner," he said. "My wife is Italian and she serves crab every Christmas Eve so we come here every year to get our crab."
Cynthia Rose from Redwood City also drove over to Princeton Seafood this morning. "A Christmas Eve without crab? My family would not stand for it," she laughs. "I don't know if it's a California thing, but we've always had crab for Christmas instead of a roast or turkey."
Whether it's a California or a coastal tradition, the folks at Princeton Seafood Company say that over the years they have come across more people wanting crab on Christmas, replacing traditional ham and turkey Christmas dinners with the crustacean.
"You can get turkey any time of the year, but crab? It's the best right now. It's local, in season, and it's sweet and not frozen," said El Granada resident Dave Buelow, who was in the back of line waiting to pick up four crabs that he pre-ordered the day before.
"For many people it's always been their tradition to have crab for Christmas dinner," said owner Botham, "but more people these days want something different and want to eat more local seasonal food, so the crab has caught their attention and will be the main course for their holiday dinner."