Meet the English brothers, Detroit’s seafood boil OGs
When Charles English speaks, his voice carries both the confidence and the slight exasperation of a trendsetter who’s been explaining himself for a long time.
“We are definitely the ones who brought this flavor to the city,” says the middle of the three English brothers, who together introduced Southern-style seafood boils to Detroit in 2009.
At the height of the Great Recession, Charles saw opportunity. The Detroit native was living in Florida, where his wife picked up a crab boil recipe that she tried out on the family during a visit back home. The overwhelmingly positive reaction sparked an idea for a business, and after coming across a vacant cafe while taking the scenic route from the suburbs, Charles decided to pack up and move back home to open Crab House Ribs & Soul Cafe with his brothers.
All these years later, Charles isn’t surprised at just how many seafood boil spots have sprung up in the wake of the Crab House, which opened on what was at the time a much emptier stretch of 7 Mile on Detroit’s west side. A handful have started and failed nearby in the intervening years, and more are springing up every day from the city to the suburbs. Local celebrity chef Max Hardy is even bringing his take on the trend to the Avenue of Fashion with What’s Crackin’ later this summer.
None of this surprises the Englishes.
What does surprise them, though, is that it took this long for the others to catch on in the first place.
A local landmark emerges
“When we first opened up, tumbleweeds were going down the street,” recalls oldest English brother, Eric, whose son Eric Jr. now also works in the family business.
Junior beams with pride as he squirts the Crab House’s trademark garlic butter all over a steaming cluster of snow crab.
“We make everything fresh, from scratch, from the sauces to the seasonings,” Eric Jr. says. “Every day.”
Things have certainly changed in the 13 years since the Crab House swung its doors open. Back then, local seafood options consisted mainly of chains like Red Lobster and Joe’s Crab Shack, and few of the surrounding buildings on Seven Mile were occupied with functioning businesses.
Early on, Charles says, they’d have to constantly explain their food to customers, who didn’t quite understand why they were getting a boiled egg with their saucy crab claws.
“But once they tasted it, they were sold,” he says.
The Crab House quickly became a beacon for the community, a local landmark and sign of hope amid a time of economic desperation.
“It was definitely a leap of faith,” Charles says. “I pretty much pointed every arrow against me. Some of my friends in Florida thought I was crazy opening up during a recession and introducing a flavor that nobody had really heard of before. I thought if we can weather this storm right here, our chances of success would be that much greater.”
That tenacity proved to come in handy, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adapting to survive
The crab boils proved to be a hit, but the Crab House also specializes in slow-smoked barbecue fare, inflected with their trademark garlic flavor and their Mama Earline’s special barbecue sauce. And don’t get them started on their best seller, their creamy alfredo dinners.
The array of flavorful offerings and the brothers’ familial customer service spurred a second Crab House location in Warren in 2016.
Prospects were looking good for the brothers’ stated goal of making crab boils as popular as Coney Island in Detroit, with them leading the charge.
But then the competition started to crop up, seafood prices began to rise, and then the pandemic hit, completely upending not just the Crab House’s business, but the entire business of restaurants.
Even before the pandemic, the brothers would deliver their food as far as Pontiac and downriver, but delivery and carryout became a lifeline over the last two years.
Today, the once bustling dining room of the original Seven Mile location acts as storage space for chairs and other equipment — and the Crab House’s seven-day-a-week service has been limited to five days for the foreseeable future, with shorter hours on the open days.
The Warren location admittedly struggled more during the pandemic, but business has been solid on Seven Mile and the brothers are once again thinking about growth, first getting the dining room back open and then hopefully another location or two, maybe a food truck
“It’s a gift,” says Eric. “Everybody always tells me, ‘To do what you guys did with my brothers or my family would be impossible.’ So I tell mom all the time, ‘Whatever you equipped us with worked.'”
Family business is not without its unique challenges, but the pandemic proved to reinforce the brotherly bond that may have crumbled without blood connecting the business.
It’s been a true labor of love — but the magic recipe of spicy boiled seafood and the vision to bring something new to the city has paid off.
“We actually made people feel comfortable coming back to Seven Mile,” Charles says proudly. “So it’s been a good thing.”
— By Mark Kurlyandchik; Photos by Joe Vaughn.