Growing a Small Business with a Strategic Partner

As founders, business owners, and CEOs, our businesses are like our babies: we know what’s best for them. My business, The Crabby Shack, is located in Crown Heights Brooklyn, NY. With a lot of hard work and perseverance by my co-owner Gwen and I, we’ve been able to see our dreams realized. As a business owner in the food industry I know that just making it beyond a year is a success, but when I see a line of customers during the lunch rush at The Crabby Shack, and the energy and bustle in the kitchen behind me I’m filled with gratitude and pride. I’m grateful for the success, but we want more for “our baby” – we want to grow. 

Before the pandemic we opened our second location. It was busy, but we weren’t making money, and I couldn’t understand why. Carrying the second location was beginning to jeopardize the whole business operation. In the Fall of 2019, I applied and was accepted to the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses – a program for small business owners like me who want to grow their businesses. My cousin in Philadelphia had done the program as well and thought it would be really good for me. She knew I wanted to grow Crabby Shack but I was so hands-on in the business I wasn’t sure I would have the time to do it. I came to find out that part of why I was struggling to grow is because I spent so much time working IN my business instead of time working ON my business. 

Finding the Right Small Business Support

The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program gave me the skills and tools to better understand the financials of my business and how to access capital. This might be a good time to mention that before I started Crabby Shack at age 40 I was a fashion stylist, so reading financial statements and working with lenders was all new to me. In addition to the skills, the program gave me the confidence that I could do this.

During the program, we had a business advisor who helped us grasp the content and apply it to our businesses. It was through this relationship and experience that I discovered why my second location wasn’t profitable: my bookkeeper had failed to notice that a food delivery provider had failed to pay us for many months. This was enormously frustrating. How could this happen? How could my bookkeeper have missed this after the many conversations we’d had where I said, something isn’t right. How could I have missed it?

At the beginning of 2020, we decided to close the second location while we rectified the vendor and bookkeeping problem, and implemented some of my new learning. Someone in my 10,000 Small Businesses cohort was actually looking for a new space for their next growth opportunity and they were able to take our space off our hands. The power of having other small business owner connections, like the ones I made in the program, is a gift the keeps on giving. While we could never have predicted what was about to happen in New York City and all around the world in 2020, giving up that second location is what, in part, helped us stay afloat till today. 

Finding a Strategic Partner for Growth

On more stable footing, and with a better understanding of what I needed to grow, I was able to connect with someone –through a friend’s recommendation and pure luck—who was interested in investing in The Crabby Shack and wanted to become a strategic partner to us. They saw our potential and our desire to grow and they were in a position to both make an investment and provide guidance for us to achieve our goals.

We were ecstatic about this opportunity and the potential for where we could go, but the growth hasn’t been without some growing pains. One of the first things our partner suggested was for us to refresh our brand. I was open to it, but when the designer showed us updated logos and branding, I was shocked and resistant. You see, in Crabby Shack’s logo there is a beautiful red Dungeness crab named GIGI (for Gwen & Fifi ). That crab is my girl! It’s special to us. It has meaning. All of a sudden I was questioning what we had got ourselves into. I felt like saying, “just because you invested in my business doesn’t mean you get to change my business.” We arrived at a compromise, which we all really love, but it was hard. 

In another instance, our partner thought we should expand our food product offerings, thought partnerships and collaborations. We had implemented a successful grab-and-go and freezer section where customers can get crab dip, frozen lobster, chowder, etc. to take home. This new potential collaboration was with a company that makes ravioli and we’d collaborate on making lobster tortellini and crab ravioli. We would even own the name Crabioli thanks to our new partner! But, I remember being in the kitchen, eating these ravioli thinking, “OK, they’re very good, but I don’t want to collaborate on this.” I was worried about giving up too much of what we built. Instead, I suggested they become a co-packer for us where they create our product to our specifications and ship it for us. Again, we arrived in a good place, but growth doesn’t come without some growing pains. 

Lessons Learned from Finding a Strategic Partner

What I learned from these experiences is that I didn’t have to give up my power as the business owner to work with a strategic partner who is helping us grow. I can be assertive and listen to their ideas at the same time. I listened, but I stood my ground, and I think it made him respect me more because he saw both my passion and my knowledge about what we had built. 

As I look back on this journey with The Crabby Shack, the truth is we’ve made a lot of mistakes from how we manage staff to how we track inventory. We’re still here, in part because, we’ve learned from those mistakes and become better. Successful small business ownership isn’t about knowing all the answers and doing everything right, it’s about correcting when things aren’t right. 

Not many people in the food business can say that they had their best financial year during the pandemic, but we did. There are many factors why, but it’s because we took chances, calculated risks, stayed true to our brand and who we are, and adjusted when we were off-course. 

Because of those things, The Crabby Shack’s future looks bright: in the near term we hope to move into a larger space with a commissary kitchen to expand our growing online/shipping business, we’re going to get that second location back, but this time, we’re doing it the right way.

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Fifi Bell-Clanton

Fifi is the co-founder and owner of The Crabby Shack – Brooklyn, NY. She one of the business owners selected to partake in Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in 2019.