China's Newest Innovation: Live Crab Vending Machines

The crustaceans even come with crab vinegar and ginger tea.

Live hairy crabs are displayed in a vending machine at a main subway station in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. (Sean Yong/Reuters)

It’s that time of year again, when the people of China unite in tearing apart exoskeletons to suck up the flesh of hairy crabs. From August to October, the crabs—which get their name from the hair-like tendrils that grow on their claws—sell like hotcakes throughout China.

Except, hotcakes don’t sell in vending machines. Live hairy crabs? Apparently, yes. On September 11, a vending machine stocked with live crabs appeared on a street in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. The machine, which is restocked daily, sells crabs for around 20 RMB ($3.27), along with the appropriate accoutrements (crab vinegar and two bags of ginger tea).

“It arrived just this evening—we’re the first company in Hangzhou to have one!” Mr. Liu, the vending machine’s owner, told City Express. Liu, who owns the shop next door, is hoping to capture after-hours demand for crabs with the self-service machine. “Crab shops like ours, they generally close at night,” said Liu. “But what are people to do at night when their stomach starts to feel empty and they want to chow down on a hairy crab and knock back some booze?”

If you assumed this cutting-edge invention was brand new, you were wrong. In 2010, another crab vending machine appeared in a Nanjing subway station, pictured below:

A Chinese man looks at a crab vending machine at a subway station in Nanjing city, east Chinas Jiangsu province, 10 October 2010. Twin Lakes Crab Co., based in Gaoshun County roughly an hour-and-a-half drive south of the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, recently unveiled what appears to be the worlds first live crab vending machine. The machine, installed in the Nanjing subway, sells crabs at prices ranging from 15 to 50 yuan (US$2.25 to US$7.5), depending on size. The crustaceans in question are hairy crabs, a regional specialty treasured throughout China and elsewhere for their roe. And since no one would dare eat hairy crab without ginger-infused vinegar, the bottom shelf offers bottles of that as well. The machine reportedly keeps the crabs, each packaged in its own custom-designed plastic cage, at 5 degrees Celsius, cold enough to put them to sleep but warm enough to keep them breathing. A sign next to the machine guarantees each crab will come out alive, offering compensation of three live crabs for every dead one that pops out.(Imaginechina via AP Images
A man stares at a crab vending machine in Nanjing. (AP)
Liu bought the latest crab machine from a man named Shi Tuanjie, chairman of the Gaochun Double Lake Crab Company, who owned the original machine pictured above. In its heyday, Shi’s original machine sold 200 crabs a day and boasted crab-savvy innovations, such as climate control and packaging:
  • The machine’s temperature of 5-10° C preserved the crabs in a dormant state longer than was possible in a stall, leading many people to call them “sleeping crabs.”
  • But the machine’s winning characteristic was the crab packaging. Sellers typically bind the claws of hairy crabs, which supposedly hurts the flavor. To fix this, Shi built a “Crab Villa,” a multi-tired box designed to make crabs feel like they’re in a cave. Shi says he came up with this idea one day, long after hairy crab season had ended, when he found a crab hiding under his sofa.
  • What stocked the Nanjing machine, though, was Shi’s upgrade of “Crab Villa”: an edible container that neither broke the crabs’ legs nor suffocated them. Dubbed “Golden Armor,” Shi’s new container could be dropped in boiling water at home, minimizing pinching risk.
An employee loads packages containing live hairy crabs into a vending machine at a main subway station in Nanjing, Jiangsu province December 17, 2010. The crab dispenser was designed by Shi Tuanjie, Chairman of the Nanjing Shuanghu Crab Industrial Company, who came out with the idea of a crab dispenser 3 years ago. This is the first live crab vending machine in China, and was installed on October 1 this year. The crabs cost from 10 yuan (US$1.50) to 50 yuan (US$7.50), depending on size and gender, and customers are promised a compensation of 3 live crabs if their purchase is dead. The machine sells an average of 200 live crabs daily. Shi plans to popularize the machines on a larger scale to airports, residential areas and supermarkets, according to local media. REUTERS/Sean Yong
Pinch-free crab vending. (Sean Yong/Reuters)

But when hairy crab season rolled around in 2011, Double Lake didn’t restock the Nanjing vending machine. It’s not clear why, but local media reports suggests it was more successful as a marketing stunt than anything else. “Since more people ogled the vending machine crabs than actually bought them, the crab mortality rate was fairly high,” said the Yangzi Evening News.

Even if Hangzhou’s vending machine isn’t all that profitable either, Liu, like his predecessor, is banking on the machine’s marketing benefits in the hopes of boosting his store’s crab brand.

But Liu may have a sales advantage over Shi: the brand integrity of his merchandise. Shi’s crabs came from Gaochun Lake, an area where crabs are considered inferior to those of Yangcheng Lake, the origin of Liu’s crabs. (Gaochun Lake has been associated with so-called “bath crabs”—which are raised in questionable habitats and sold shortly before harvest season to upmarket farms in Yangcheng or Taihu Lakes. Those farms then mix the inferior crabs in with the higher-pedigree crabs, passing them off as the latter when they sell them to distributors.)

But there may be a weak spot in Liu’s endeavor. It looks like Golden Armor wasn’t part of his deal:

more hairy crab