Richard Wenstrom has built a better crab picker, and the world of seafood producers is starting to beat a path to his Hampton, Va. door. Called the Quik-Pik, the machine extracts more meat from crab shells in five seconds than a hand picker can dig out in 15 minutes and enables seafood processors to cut their labor costs more than 50 percent. But Wenstrom’s solution did not come cheap. His five backers invested $1.5 million over seven years.
“The machine is simple; that’s the beauty of it,” says Wenstrom, 53, a onetime New England scallop-boat skipper. Fifteen years ago he invented a scallop shucker, only to have the patent contested by fast-moving competitors. But Virginia seafood entrepreneur William P. Hunt of Hampton heard about Wenstrom’s genius and in 1968 asked him to turn his attention to crabs. Only a couple of days after Massachusetts-born Wenstrom moved to Hampton with his wife, Barbara, and two of their children (the third is a career Army man), the solution “popped” into his head. “I was sitting alone in my garage drinking beer and listening to classical music,” he recalls. “I thought: No fingers! Everybody has tried mechanical fingers or scrapers. Impact had to be the basic principle!” He dropped crabs on the garage floor and shook them in perforated cans until he was certain he was right.
The Quik-Pik holds a rack with 24 crabs that have been cooked and de-clawed—by hand for the moment, though Wenstrom intends to mechanize that process next. A diaphragm inflates to lock the crabs in place. Then, with a deafening roar (ear plugs are recommended for operators), the machine vibrates at 4,200 cycles per minute. Within five seconds one pound of crab meat falls into a receiving tray.
Wenstrom’s company, the Sea Savory Corp., plans to lease, not sell,, the Quik-Pik, which hand pickers, who earn as little as $2.65 an hour, have dubbed the Monster. And perhaps rightly. Their skills, passed from generation to generation, may no longer be needed. “Americans like lump crab meat,” counters Wenstrom, “and that still has to be hand-selected. Some pickers look at me with daggers in their eyes. But there’s a place for people and my machine.”