With his yellow pick-up truck, upbeat Latin music and tables piled high with empanadas and crab cakes, Chris Hoge and his value added food business, Chris’ Marketplace, has been a fixture of the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market for nearly 10 years. His name has become synonymous with the crab cakes, empanadas, gazpacho and other value-added food products that he sells at four FRESHFARM Markets, as well as retailers throughout the East coast. However, nearly two decades ago, the business was born out of a lifelong love of food, the ocean and a happy accident.
With a father who graduated from the Naval Academy, Chris spent much of his childhood traveling. He and his family had moved 14 times by the time that he was 11, and it was through this experience that he developed an affinity for travel, food and the ocean. In particular, in the three years they lived in Panama, he remembers spending hours eating empanadas, pockets of dough stuffed with a variety of fillings and then fried or baked. As a teenager, some of his first jobs were in the restaurant industry, where he learned to experiment with flavors and textures of different foods. Between college and grad school, while working as the captain of a longline fishing boat for tuna and swordfish, Chris created a recipe for a sauce meant to be paired with seafood. One afternoon, while eating crabs with some friends, Chris made a batch of sauce after the group had run out of Old Bay. That night, the sauce spilled into a bowl of leftover crabmeat, and Chris had a revelation. He could make crab cakes using the ingredients in the sauce as the foundation for his recipe.
For Chris, texture is the starting point of any great recipe, and his crab cakes are loaded with the one ingredient essential for great texture: high quality crab meat. Chris has been purchasing his blue crab meat to make his crab cakes from a variety of Maryland seafood vendors for years. On the same token, Chris seeks out the freshest, local ingredients he can find for his other products, purchasing veggies for his empanadas and gazpacho from local farmers.
While his crab cakes won him plenty of praise, initially Chris had trouble finding a steady buyer. He approached restaurants such as Legal Seafood in Boston and retailers like Bread and Circus, but found that many offered to buy his recipe rather than the finished product. For Chris, integrity is paramount, and he had no interest in selling his recipe and losing control over the quality. Finally, Chris made a connection with the Japanese Embassy in DC. They began purchasing crab cakes to serve at events, and found them so popular that guests were breaking the rules of decorum to come back into the kitchen and ask for more.
Shortly after, the business began to take off and Chris found he needed a crew to help him keep up with the demand. This was the mid 1990s, and the Siege of Sarajevo had just ended. A chance call from a friend working to place refugees from the war with employment opportunities set him up with a hardworking crew that were not only integral to the young business, but also a group of men and women who became lifelong friends.
From its humble beginnings, Chris’ Marketplace has grown to sell through numerous retailers and farmers markets, yet Chris has never stopped planning for the future. He enjoys the direct customer connection he has at farmers markets, and hopes to open his own retail location at the site of his kitchen facility one day soon. In the meantime, you can find Chris at the Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, Penn Quarter or by the White House FRESHFARM Markets. Stop by, say hello and pick up some crab cakes or empanadas for dinner, just don’t ask for the recipe.
Post by Laura Genello, FRESHFARM Markets Newsletter