Staci Samaras stands inside The Collective ― Offshore/Encore, a new restaurant she opened with her partners in Downtown Columbia. The Collective Offshore is participating in the Maryland Seafood Crawl. (TBM / Jason Whong)

Want to be the judge of who has the best crab cake in Maryland? With one ticket, you can try crab cakes at 26 restaurants in the state and vote for your favorite.

Elkridge-based seafood distributor and wholesaler J.J. McDonnell & Co. is spearheading the inaugural Maryland Seafood Crawl, promoting the seafood industry in Maryland’s more nontraditional markets, meaning those not as close to a creek, river or the Chesapeake Bay. October is National Seafood Month. The Crawl aims to find Maryland’s best crab cake.

The idea

The main purpose of the Crawl is “to get our restaurants more foot traffic and for new customers to discover more great places to eat,” said Hollie Snyder, marketing manager for J.J. McDonnell, who noted Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore City, as targeted markets during the event, partially due to their proximity to J.J. McDonnell’s Elkridge headquarters.

To participate, diners purchase tickets for $50 that gives them a ticket through an app that can be scanned at each destination. “They then order the food (for free) that particular restaurant is offering,” said Snyder, “which often includes crab meat in an appetizer.

“Restaurants are buying crab meat for their own creations, as well as various other seafood selections,” she said. “Our goal is for them to market their offerings, build their clientele and make more money.”

Diners can use the app to vote for their favorite crab cake.

About a week into the event, ticket sales “have gone great, with more than 100 sold to date,” she said. The best part of the Crawl is that the tickets will be available until “toward the end of October.

“Sponsorships have gone well from our vendors and other local companies, too,” said Snyder. “We offered several options, from a $250 charitable donation to $5,000 sponsorships” that have come from more than 20 organizations, including Visit Howard County, Chesapeake Home Health Care, M&T Bank and Assured Partners.

McDonnell spent about $15,000 upfront to found the event, which is also supporting area nonprofits like Paul’s Place and The Franciscan Center, both of Baltimore, that have culinary programs. The funds will be used to pay for 12-week courses for students who are unable to afford school.

Off markets

Snyder said the response within the restaurant community has been encouraging, as “about half” of the establishments that were approached about participating have done so.

One local participant is Lak Columbia. “We’re excited the event has expanded beyond the Maryland coastal and maritime markets this year and are happy to present fresh, delicious seafood from,” said Bebe Miller, director of operations for the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel, which is offering an 8-ounce crab cake with Summer Succotash and Tarragon Dill Aioli. “We’re confident we’ll show guests you don’t have to go to the Chesapeake Bay to indulge in some of the best crab cakes in the state.”

Amanda Hof is also excited about this new-ish way to promote tourism. “The Crawl will raise awareness of what Central Maryland has to offer,” said the executive director of Howard County Tourism, “as it really has the best access to the seafood processors, not only via McDonnell, but also at the Jessup food hub.”

From a quality standpoint, that’s key and especially notable since the Baltimore-Washington Corridor and Howard are seen as growth markets.

“That gives us direct access because Chesapeake Bay food comes from all over the region and is brought here to be processed,” she said. “That enables Howard County, which is landlocked, to offer the freshest Bay seafood you’ll find just about anywhere.”

Looking statewide

While the extra sales are for what generally falls into the small plates category, at its core the Maryland Seafood Crawl is “a marketing opportunity,” said Tom Cagle, sous chef at Two Rivers Steak & Fish House, in Pasadena, which is offering a seafood salad tostada with crab meat.

“The platform the app is on basically streamlines the process,” he said. “Customers can buy a meal ticket that allows them to access to all of the locations once.”

It’s also “bringing awareness to local restaurants that people might not know about,” said Cagle, “and it’s a good media representation for McDonnell because they are the only product provider. No other local companies really compare with them as far as their quality and customer service.”

More than a week into the event, hopes are running high for a reprise of the event next year.

“It’ll take time to catch on like any new event, just like any localized restaurant week,” said Hof. “This is also a great thing for tourism, because there are locales to visit in all directions of Maryland and will get people out and about.

“Hopefully, Frederick and the Eastern Shore could end up being overnight stays for people who have purchased tickets and are using the app,” she said, “especially since they can use it for an entire month.”

And the public will get to vote for its favorites, so the number of votes will offer another indicator of the event’s success.

“If this is a huge hit with consumers,” said Hof, “more restaurants will want in.”