What Matters Most: Passing the Torch at Blue Crab Bay
“When joy and duty clash, let duty go to smash!” Not exactly the self-proclaimed motto you'd expect of a highly successful businesswoman, but for Pamela Barefoot, Virginia’s Small Business Person of the Year in 1999, SBA’s Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur in 2003, and the recent inductee of the Specialty Food Association Hall of Fame, it’s the motto she chooses to live by.
Barefoot’s drive and wanderlust — sparked by a letter she found tucked inside a book purchased for fifty cents some 40 years ago — has taken her around the world and inspired her to take chances, both personally and professionally.
The two-page type-set plea, written on March 22, 1929, penned by the name of “Amy BVD,” hopes to persuade a friend to travel abroad with her. “Must you really stay home to care for your brother’s children? I do so want you to come,” the letter says. “Why not follow the philosophy of Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm — ‘when joy and duty clash, let duty go to smash!’”
All of those years ago, Barefoot, now 66, took the plea to heart. And thus, attributes her life to unexpected adventure, including owning and operating Blue Crab Bay Co., the specialty food company whose homemade products have helped put the Eastern Shore on the map.
Considering the company her child, it's understandable Barefoot was concerned when it came time to hand over the enterprise, which she founded in 1985, to a new owner.
“This company – its evolution, its employees and its mission – has been my blood, sweat and tears,” she said. “I've put my heart and soul into it for more than three decades.”
Searching for the right replacement as Barefoot approaches retirement was daunting. But Barefoot says she has finally found the right person to shepherd the company into the future - Eastern Shore Maryland native Elizabeth Lankford.
“Connecting with Elizabeth has been a dream come true,” said Barefoot. “For the last 10 years, I've thought about what would happen to the company if something happened to me and it's been a scary thought.”
Barefoot spent the first seventeen years of her life living and working on a tobacco farm near Four Oaks, North Carolina, a place where she learned “hard work builds character.”
With limited choices for her gender and family background, Barefoot eventually decided to attend Louisburg College, where she says life truly began.
“I was hesitant to go to a large city,” she said. “Being a country girl, I liked that it was in a small town, and Louisburg gave me a strong foothold to burst forward into the world on my own.”
Upon completing her degree in psychology, Barefoot began work ing with at-risk youth, which was something she was good at, but, after four years, knew was not going to be a long-term career choice. Using money she raised through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and donations from tobacco companies, Barefoot traveled back home to photograph and document tobacco farms and the people who owned and worked them.
Upon finishing her self-published book, Mules and Memories: A Photo Documentary of the Tobacco Farmer, Barefoot sold many of the 10,000 printed copies at tobacco festivals in Virginia and North Carolina and at trade shows across the country.
“I was incredibly proud of myself,” she said, adding entrepreneurship runs in the family. Her much-beloved cousin, Michael, owns A Southern Season, a large-scale gourmet and gift shop in Chapel Hill, and her mother owned and operated Barefoot’s TLC Nursery near Four Oaks.
“The project was a massive undertaking, and executing it on my own gave me the confidence I needed later in life,” she said.
In the early 80's, Barefoot met and married Jim Green. The couple was living in Virginia when a friend invited them to visit the state’s Eastern Shore. They immediately fell in love with crabbing, clamming and the tidal rhythms of the Chesapeake Bay. Knowing they had found a new place to call home, the couple packed their belongings and soon found themselves living among the quiet shores of Onancock.
The rural coastal peninsula offered a blank canvas for opportunity, inspiring Barefoot to build her own business. “I started Blue Crab Bay Co. out of desperation,” she said. “There were no jobs here. If you wanted to work, you had to create it yourself.”
Barefoot mixed seasonings and spice blends for crab and clam, two species prevalent to the Eastern Shore, in her farmhouse kitchen and dreamed of other specialties that would embrace the flavors of the region. Much to her delight and surprise, “business took off fast,” she said. “There was a much-needed niche ready to be filled.”
In 1986, Barefoot entered a contest hosted by Self magazine and wrote: “I envision someday owning a multi-faceted operation, including a retail shop, and mail order and wholesale of regional foods and corporate gifts.” Her entry won, and awarded her $7,500 along with national publicity.
Business steadily increased, and forced Barefoot out of her kitchen and into several locations before settling into a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in the Accomack Industrial Park. The brand evolved to offer everything from coastal-themed snacks and peanuts to Bloody Mary mixers and seafood seasonings that continue to receive national acclaim. Under the corporate umbrella of Bay Beyond Inc., the business also offers Blue Crab Stoneware designed specifically for the company by an Eastern Shore artisan.
“The dream became a reality, and then some,” she said.
EASTERN SHORE HERITAGE
Over the years, people approached Barefoot about buying the Blue Crab Bay brand, but, “they didn't want the building or the land, or the employees; they just wanted the name,” she said. Taking the brand to another state or being absorbed into another corporation was out of the question.
“This company has been a source of pride for a lot of people, and I didn't want the employees to lose their jobs,” she said. “And I really didn't want Blue Crab Bay to not be an Eastern Shore brand, because that's what it's always been.”
Barefoot eventually connected with Tom Lankford. His company, Frankford Produce, was founded in 1964 and later merged with Sysco Corp., resulting in the subsidiary Lankford-Sysco Food Services, now Sysco Eastern Maryland.
“From one Eastern Shore businessperson to another, I confided in Tom that I wanted to find someone to take Blue Crab forward, but only if they could keep its charm and integrity,” she said.
Lankford could think of no one better for the job than his daughter, Elizabeth.
Barefoot and the Lankford family met several times over the course of two years, “making sure it was a good fit for everybody,” Barefoot said. And by the end of 2016, Elizabeth Lankford, 32, became the official owner of the company, with the title of president.
Lankford's plans for the company include embracing and utilizing social media, as well as seeking to expand sales to new areas, including seafood markets and corporate gifts, among other potential markets.
“I’m incredibly excited,” said Lankford. “Pamela has passed me an incredible torch of responsibility which I do not take lightly.”
Like Barefoot, Lankford, who will be living in Onancock, is also proud of her Eastern Shore heritage. She grew up outside Pocomoke, Maryland, before moving away for school.
“I came home as much as I could,” she said. “There's just something incredibly special about the Shore. It's hard to explain.”
Lankford recently resigned from her job in Washington, D.C., where she specialized in state government affairs for Healthcare Distribution Alliance, when she was introduced to Barefoot, calling the series of events, “nothing short of fate.”
“As cliché as it sounds, everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I left my city job to come home without a game plan. I never expected this in a million years.”
Barefoot remains at work “nearly full time,” to help Lankford learn the business. The company's employees, some of whom have been working there since nearly its inception, will also remain after the ownership transition.
Among Pamela Barefoot's fondest memories is when her company hit a major mark in sales.
“I gave everybody a little plaque that the jewelry store in Onancock made us, which said, ‘I helped make the first million at Blue Crab Bay,’” she said.
Another moment Barefoot is particularly proud of is when Blue Crab Bay won a gold trophy at the International Fancy Food Show for the company's popular Stingray Bloody Mary Mixer. Not just for the trophy but for what unfolded afterward.
At the time, Virginia's ABC stores did not sell mixers, a situation Barefoot decided needed remedying. She approached Delegate Robert Bloxom and said, “We've got to fix this. They should be carrying Virginia mixers, because they carry Virginia wines.” Bloxom introduced a bill in the House of Delegates and the law was changed.
Making things happen has always been part of Barefoot's DNA. When she's not helping out at Blue Crab Bay Co., Barefoot plans to spend more time traveling in the motor home she and her husband bought a few years ago and marketing a cottage they own through Airbnb.
“I have a million of little side projects I've wanted to do,” she said. Barefoot hopes to write a small book about four sisters from North Carolina she met years ago, as well as publish another tobacco farming photobook.
“You can’t be afraid to take chances,” she said. “If you have an idea, don’t just sit on it, act on it. And remember: When joy and duty clash, let duty go to smash!”
Barefoot and Lankford clearly share a commitment to that which matters most: the joy that comes from doing work you love in a community you cherish.
Learn more and shop at Blue Crab Bay.