This month, the Cracked Claw at Peter Pan will dish up its last crab feast, shutting the doors on the Urbana landmark for seafood dining for 22 years — and 35 in Frederick County. Sadly, it was no longer financially feasible for the family to keep the restaurant open, staff said.
“The only word I can say is heartbreak,” said Angel Nusbaum, daughter of co-owners Johnny “Pappy” and Barbara “BJ” Poole. “It’s their child of 35 years.”
Nusbaum’s eyes sparkled as she looked around the dining room in the Cracked Claw and talked about the thousands of crab feasts they’ve served, the memories they’ve made as a community and the family that’s been built on the staff. She reminisced back to when her parents opened up the Cracked Claw at its first location in Germantown; she was 12.
“I started dishwashing there,” she said with a smile. She’s been full-time manager for eight years. “My Dad cooked, and my mother did the front.”
The Cracked Claw moved to Urbana in 1989, moving into the about 36,000-square-foot building that once was the historic Peter Pan Inn. Then, 18 years ago, part of the building was turned into an arena for off-track betting.
Bob Gross, 63, has been on staff as a mutual teller for the off-track betting since it opened, he said.
“I take bets on horse races,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “I tell people I am in short-term investments.”
He said he is aggrieved that the place is shutting down, robbing him of his job — and a family-like team.
“We have all been like one big happy family here and now it is all coming to an end,” he said.
It truly has been a family affair, Nusbaum said, adding that they have employed thousands in the community, including lots of high-school students — and members of her entire family. And that’s one of the reasons they have to close, she said.
“My dad is 86, and to get him to retire, we knew we were going to have to sell the place,” she said. But the real reason, she said, is finances. “He did not want to do it. But when you start accruing debt, it’s time.”
The staff tried everything to keep the business, Nusbaum says. Since fresh crab is seasonal, during the winter months they began to host events to bring in more business. They hosted buffet dinners on all holidays except Christmas. The most popular were the Easter and Mother’s Day meals, which for the past two years have fed 900 people between noon and 4 p.m.
But it still was not enough. Both restaurant and off-track betting sales declined, she said. The building holds many memories, beginning from the time it opened in June 1926 as the Peter Pan Inn.
JoAnne Leatherman, 60, worked at the Peter Pan as a waitress during the summer of 1971 when she was in college. Leatherman lives in Damascus and resminiced about the fantastic food at the Peter Pan — fried chicken and her favorite, the corn fritters. She said that in those days, it was “the mecca,” the place to go to celebrate in the area.
“I don’t know that there is another place with such ambiance — the fountains and the birds and the twinkly lights,” she said. “It will be a shame to see that gone and some modern building put in it’s place.”
Sadly, Nusbaum says she thinks that’s what will happen. Capitol Commercial Development currently has a pending contract on the building, she said.. Jeff Thorpe, general manager of the Cracked Claw, confirmed that the restaurant was being closed but would not comment on the future of the space.
“With great heartbreak, we knew it would be a developer coming in,” Nusbaum said. “But we are left with no choice.”
Oct. 9 will be the last operational day at the Cracked Claw, followed by an auction on Oct. 13 and 14 hosted by Cochrane auctioneers. Everything is being auction off, Nusbaum said, including the antique grape lights that hang over a table and were part of the original Peter Pan Inn — and the antique sandbuckets that her mom hung from the ceiling in the dining room.
“It was a good run,” she said. Her eyes misty with emotion, she added, “I just thought we would always have it, you know?”