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Family biz hooks television audience

Ever wondered if your family’s favorite dish has what it takes to make it a star at the supermarket?

The all-female owners of the former Capt. Jack’s Seafood Shack in Thornburg used to daydream about just such a role for their popular crab pie. Now, thanks to Lifetime’s “Supermarket Superstar,” the Van Cleves are turning that dream into reality.

“The experience of taking crab pie on a nationwide platform was invaluable,” said Monica Van Cleve, who is one of three contestants in the show’s dinner entrée episode. It will air at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday.

“Supermarket Superstar” gives food entrepreneurs a chance to become the next Mrs. Fields, Orville Redenbacher or Chef Boyardee. Episode winners receive $10,000 in prize money and $100,000 worth of product development to create professional samples of their products.

For the season finale, three winners will be invited back to compete for the grand prize by presenting their product to A&P CEO Sam Martin in hopes that their product will be launched in A&P supermarkets and their affiliated chains nationwide.

Monica Van Cleve is forbidden by contract to say who won in her episode, which was the ninth out of 10. But her family’s crab pie generated favorable press during a food-tasting event that the show held on July 15 in Los Angeles. It’s based on their version of a 150-year-old Virginia recipe said to have been a favorite of the Lee family at Stratford Hall.

Currently, crab pie is produced for the Van Cleves by Graham and Rollins Inc. in Hampton, and available on the Van Cleves’ website,, for $49.99 for six 5-ounce pies. It’s also sold at The Hampton Seafood Market and is on the menu at Hill City House Restaurant in Lynchburg.

Their crab pies will soon be sold on QVC as well.

“The show hasn’t aired yet, but it’s like we’re getting the balls rolling with crab pie and the reality show is the catapult,” said Monica Van Cleve, whose family is also coming out with a cookbook and line of seafood sauces. “All these milestones and many dreams that we’ve had are coming true.”

The Stafford High School grad grew up helping her mother, sister and aunt at Capt. Jack’s, a seafood store and restaurant. Giant Food once approached them about carrying what their website calls “the crab cake’s more decadent, richer sister,” but at the time the women weren’t able to handle the volume the grocery chain would need.

“Demand was drastically outweighing supply,” said Monica Van Cleve, who has a degree in international marketing and trade from Clemson University. “That’s when we knew we needed something big to get launched.”

Opportunity knocked when someone in the seafood industry sent her mother, Shelly Van Cleve, an email asking if she knew anyone who wanted to go to a “Supermarket Superstar” open casting call. They were being held in Los Angeles, where the show is shot, as well as Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Austin. Monica Van Cleve, who owns a marketing firm, just happened to be living in Austin at the time.

“I think it was almost fate,” she said. “Austin is a smaller place to have a casting call. Usually they’re in Houston or Dallas.”

At her mother’s urging, Monica Van Cleve whipped up a crab pie–blue crab meat, cheeses and seasonings baked in a flaky, pastry crust—and finally had free time in the final hour of the casting call to take it over. She beat out thousands of others to win one of three spots in the ninth of 10 episodes.

“I was in Austin having dinner with my dad when I got a call on my cellphone from an L.A. number,” Van Cleve said. “A guy introduced himself as the director of ‘Shark Tank’ and ‘Undercover Boss.’ I just remember being so excited. Thirty seconds later it was, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?’”

She said she see-sawed from excitement to nervousness throughout the five days it took to film the dinner-entrée episode last February. It was fun to be picked up at the airport, for example. But she said she was overwhelmed by the show’s set, a multimillion-dollar professional kitchen where contestants are filmed by at least 20 cameras.

“It was nerve-racking because you were having to make these important decisions with cameras in your face and following your every move,” Van Cleve said.

“Supermarket Superstar” episodes are divided into segments. In the opening of Episode 9, she and the other contestants—a fitness instructor and a food-truck operator—had to appear before their mentors. They were celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, cookie mogul Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies, and food-branding expert Chris Cornyn, founder of DINE, The Food & Drink Agency.

“This is where I pitch my whole product to them and they taste it,” Van Cleve said. “They give me feedback, and this is where they tell me if I need to change anything. Then you go into the kitchen and either take their advice or you don’t.”

In her case, she said that she found their advice helpful and it gave her different ways to think about the product that she hadn’t considered.

The most anxiety-ridden part of the show involved preparing enough crab pie to feed a focus group of 10 people and waiting for their responses, said Van Cleve.

“I still don’t know the real results,” she said. “Stacy [show host Stacy Keibler] gave us tidbits. It will be a surprise when I watch the episode for the first time.”

Van Cleve said her favorite part came next. She and the other contestants got to talk about packaging their products with experts from 99 Designs, which uses crowdsourcing to help small businesses with graphic design.

“That’s where marketing guru Chris Cornyn helps us walk through our marketing and branding,” she said. “What do we want people to think and feel when they see our logo and packaging? It just opened your mind to what you need to think about when you’re getting your recipe onto supermarket shelves.”

“Supermarket Superstar” also interviews contestants about themselves and their product. Van Cleve’s included a photo shoot with her mother and sister aboard one of the boats that catches crabs for their pie.

At the end of the hour-long show, she presented her product to Tom Dahlen, the supermarket buyer for The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company who determines the winner of each episode.

“I remember being so nervous because I felt like, with crab pie, I was taking it for the team,” Van Cleve said. “I was the family member on the show, and it was all coming down to this one pitch and the nation would be watching at one time. I put pressure on myself because I wanted to make my family proud.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407