For the Van Cleves of Spotsylvania County, the family’s favorite dish is a recipe for success.
A Chesapeake blue crab pie recipe, handed down from a friend and former chef at Stratford Hall, has become the centerpiece of the family’s seafood wholesaling business they opened in 2012.
Van Cleve Seafood Co., headquartered in Spotsylvania and run by mother Shelly Van Cleve and daughters Monica Van Cleve-Talbert and Alexandra Cushing, is expanding.
The business recently opened a production facility in Richmond off Brook Road. It is launching six new items, doubling the number of seafood-based frozen food products it sells. The lineup now includes items such as scallop and bacon pie, red crab pies, bacon-wrapped shrimp and scallops. The Van Cleve girls also launched a line of sauces, and the number of supermarkets that stock their products has increased.
This year, the company will have its products used in restaurants for the first time. Two months ago, the Van Cleve Seafood Co. signed a contract for distribution by US Foods, one of the nation’s leading food service distributors that sells to restaurants, hospitals and government institutions.
Their products are also for sale in Giant Food, Harris Teeter, Whole Foods and Safeway supermarkets.
“I get giddy when I see my face in freezer case, and when I see people choose what we made,” Monica Van Cleve-Talbert said.
The road to growing a wholesale business all started when the family’s signature pies became a “Virginia’s Finest” product in 2010, and they were invited to a food show at the Richmond Coliseum. Potential buyers asked about their trucking capacity, shipping costs and how many items could fit on a pallet.
“We had no idea,” Monica Van Cleve-Talbert said.
They came away with an understanding that the way forward was selling to a larger market. They decided to take the plunge into distribution.
Their success is somewhat rare in the seafood business, which Cushing said is overwhelmingly male. Instead of being a hindrance, Cushing said their unique perspective has helped them succeed.
“The Van Cleve girls naturally have thick skin,” she said. “We can always go toe to toe with men. It can be a fun challenge. We’re more stubborn, more motivated.”
Monica Van Cleve-Talbert spends her days on the road and in sales meetings, Cushing handles the daily business of running the company; and Shelly Van Cleve cooks the products and develops new ones.
Many of their seafood suppliers are watermen who have owned their businesses for generations.
“A woman comes in and they think we can’t handle it,” Shelly said. “But we make them meet our quality standards.”