Food by VICE

These Cousins Use Crab and Social Media to Empower Their Crime-Plagued City

Opa-locka is a pretty good city. A lot of history behind it. A lot of time you hear about the negative, but you really don’t hear about the positive. So we’re trying to change that concept.

by Alex Swerdloff
Jul 21 2017, 6:00pm

All photos by author.

On a scale of one to 100—with one being the most dangerous and 100 the safest—Opa-locka, Florida has the distinct honor of being ranked a one. Its murder rates are far above the national average. The local government is on the brink of insolvency and is deemed so corrupt that a federal probe was just launched to investigate the purchase of a new city hall building. The words "urban blight," "crime plagued," and "deeply troubled" have all been used to describe the 4.2 square mile city that sits just north of downtown Miami. It's not exactly an easy place to start a business.

Don't tell that to cousins Darren Whitaker and Johnny Fannin, though. They are the men behind Crabman305, a down-and-dirty seafood joint popular among locals, tourists, and celebrities alike, many of whom make the not-so-convenient detour while visiting much glitzier South Beach, a good half hour drive away. Birdman invited them to his Palm Island mansion to cook a meal. Both Fat Joe and Fabolous have dropped by to eat. The founders are now talking about expanding nationally.

Crabman 305 Darren and Johnny store front

Darren Whitaker and Johnny Fannin. All photos by author.

So, how the hell do you build a successful restaurant in a place like Opa-locka? Here's how: Instagram.

The two crabmen attribute their startling success to the social media forum, which, they say, has played "a great—a magnificent—role" in helping them reach customers "with no marketing dollars." Fannin explains, "We get to reach people all over the world. We just had somebody today coming from Netherlands. I have no clue where that's at," he laughingly says. "But we reach all those kind of people."

Crabman305 Instagram photo

A quick scan of Crabman305's Instagram posts reveals visits from rappers and DJs tucked among many close-up photos of shrimp, crab rice, and piles of chicken wings. The restaurant has over 71,000 followers. Not bad for a hole-in-the-wall wedged in an unassuming strip mall.

Crabman305 strip mall wideshot

This is not a fancy place by any means. It's cash only and largely serves a take-out crowd, and has no dine-in tables—other than a wooden bench where people wait for their shrimp, crab, and lobsters to go. The two-crab combo lunch special at Crabman305 will set you back six bucks. Family meals to-go are available on the weekends only.

Crabman305 cashier counterJohnny Crabman305

Johnny Fannin
Darren Crabman 305 Darren Whitaker

When I visited Crabman305 earlier this month, a young woman was pacing the joint. "Shit! Goddamn, man," she muttered into her phone. Interest piqued, the store's cashier and front-of-house manager gently asked, "What's wrong, baby?" The woman, in her early twenties, said she couldn't believe she just drove for an hour in traffic to get to a takeout restaurant after seeing it on Instagram. The manager laughed; he knows the drill: She may feel that way at first, but, after tasting the food, she'll come around. Most everyone thinks the drive is worth it. That's because this is a restaurant that is slowly redefining where one goes in the quest for brilliant seafood in South Florida.

Crabman305 snow crab cooking wide shot

Whitaker and Fannin told me that neither of them had a background in food, nor were they professionally trained. After Fannin ran a barbecue business for a while—it's pretty common to see smoke rising from the backyards and garages of small houses in Opa-locka—the two realized that "seafood at the time, it was a big thing in Miami—crabs were something that was hot." So they decided to start selling seafood-based meals out of Whitaker's grandma's garage.

The business quickly took off. "When we came full force, it was amazing. We set up couches, a big screen TV in the garage. And when people came in there was kind of a waiting area. The lines used to be people coming from all over, waiting hours to get food. We had lines like we were giving away free food."

Grandma was supportive, but eventually she said enough was enough. Plus, the state was starting to catch on: "Of course. It got crazy. We had issues where the state was sending us certified letters saying we were running a business out of a house. So it was either send us fines or we'd have to move."

Crabman305 lobster cooking

Whitaker and Fannin soon found their current location, just a few blocks from grandma's house—and "not too far from I-95, which gets you here from South Beach, so it was cool"—and continued to develop recipes there. Whitaker says, "We don't have any culinary schooling or any special skills. It's pretty much—it's kind of like the hustlers in us. We're gonna give the people what they want. In the end of the day we mess around with seasoning or try it a couple of times, and if people like it, we run with it."

Crabman crab legs

I asked the two about cooking for Birdman. "It was great. You know he's a huge star, so it's always good to be building those connections. But we've been cooking for a lot of stars, so when you get that call it's like, you're still a fan, but you're gonna work."

crabman305 kitchen wide shot

How do the celebrities find them? Reviews? Write-ups? Word of mouth? None of the above, they told me: "Instagram. They DM us. We have people reach out to us and we just make it happen."

Crabman305 lobster and shrimp container

When David Guetta's limo driver called ("Shout out to Limo Matt," they tell me) and asked the Crabman305 crew to feed him daily for a month, though, the two knew where to set a limit. "Of course, that's not our strongest point as far as with the different types of food—we're more on the seafood—so that didn't work out, but that was probably our craziest experience."

Shrimp and rice crabman305

The community has been thrilled to see this success story bloom where so few do. Last year, the mayor of Miami-Dad County proclaimed March 29 to be Crabman305 Restaurant Day. Photos of the plaque and the proclamation were posted on Instagram, of course, with this tag: "GOD IS GOOD!!! THANKS TO MIAMI DADE-COUNTY for recognizing our hard work. Thanks to JEAN MONESTINE from Miami-Dade County commissioners office for presenting us with this plaque."

Crabman conch and shrimp

The co-founders of Crabman305 are upbeat about the future. When I asked them whether they see their business expanding, they tell me, "Of course! Everywhere! We actually had some offers in Orlando and Atlanta—they didn't work out. But you'll see us expanding soon." They want people everywhere to know that Opa-locka is more than its reputation may have you believe.

Crabman 305 plate

"Opa-locka is a pretty good city. A lot of history behind it. A lot of time you hear about the negative, but you really don't hear about the positive. So we're trying to change that concept. Our story is almost like a miracle."

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.