Crisfield, Md., a small Eastern Shore town about 30 miles southwest of Salisbury, has long called itself the seafood capital of the world, even though it rarely shipped its products outside the Chesapeake Bay area. Now a small, family-owned company is helping the town live up to its boast.

The John T. Handy Co. of Crisfield quickly is becoming a player in the international seafood market, exporting as many as 6 million softshell crabs a year. Taking advantage of a steady supply of the delicacy, as well as new processing techniques, the company has quadrupled its sales in the last five years. Last year it sold an estimated $7 million worth of the crabs.

Softshells are Maryland blue crabs that have shed their hard shells in order to grow larger. The crabs slide out of their older shell, remaining soft for up to four hours; once they are removed from the water, their shells stay soft until they are cooked. Traditionally, they have been served sauteed in butter, deep-fried, or coated in batter and fried. They are eaten whole and often are served in sandwiches.

Once available mainly on the East Coast, the market for softshells is expanding. About 27 percent of Handy's product is exported, said Terrence Conway, its owner.

Almost all of those exports go to Japan. Top Tokyo restaurants receive live shipments of the Handy softshells each day during the season, which runs from Memorial Day to October.

The company hopes to increase exports to 30 percent of its business this year. It recently received a working capital guarantee from the Export-Import Bank of the United States to support a $1.5 million line of credit from a local commercial bank. The company is one of two small companies in the United States supported by the Ex-Im Bank for exports to Japan.

"Most of the working capital guarantees have gone to support exports to Western Europe and China," said William F. Ryan, vice chairman and first vice president of the Ex-Im Bank. "{But} Japan is the one country that we have to be the most concerned with."

The Ex-Im Bank, often thought of as a lending institution for huge conglomerates, has made steps in recent years to lend to small businesses.

Since 1983, when Congress enacted provisions to guarantee that 10 percent of the Ex-Im Bank's funds would go to small business, more than 104 small companies have received $110 million in support for exports.

"This is a classic case of a very small company that has grown dramatically and shown its ability to expand," said Conway, who bought the company in 1981. "We found the export opportunities . . . but needed the financial backing."

Conway's wife, Susan, first heard about the crab company in 1980 while playing tennis with a friend who was a business broker. At the time, Conway was vice president of finance for the chicken giant, Perdue Farms Inc.

The ruddy-faced Conway said he inquired about the Crisfield facility the next day. The Handy company, which had been a family-run business since 1894, was selling most of its products to local seafood distributors. The company occupied a small building in downtown Crisfield and employed about 70 people at the height of the crab season.

Six months after eating his first softshell, Conway bought the company for $500,000 cash, which he had saved while working at Perdue. A native of Kansas City and a novice in the crab business, Conway said he looked at it as though he were dealing with chickens, not crabs.

"In the food business, quality is everything. We've emphasized consistent quality and have sold to people who appreciate that," he said. "Food processing is food processing . . . the transition has been easy."

Two years later, Conway borrowed about $500,000 to renovate an old oyster and tomato processing plant, transforming it into a modern softshell crab processing plant.

The new plant, located on a five-acre waterfront lot in Crisfield, is equipped with an electronic grading machine to size the crabs, a double-blast freezer to ensure high-quality freezing, ample office space for expansion, and air conditioning for the 210 employes who process and package the crabs during the hot summer months.

Harrison Lake, a 70-year-old native of the Eastern Shore, has been working for the Handy company for more than 40 years. He said the newer, more efficient plant seems to be working better.

"We used to just put 'em all together in big trays and sort 'em out by hand," he said. "But we sure do sell a lot more crabs this way."

The company standardized packaging procedures by electronically weighing all the crabs, separating them into grades that range from "medium," at 1 1/2 ounces, to "whales," at 5 1/2 ounces. The crabs then are either packed live, cleaned for cooking, or frozen for shipping at a later date.

Softshell crabs, like other seafood, taste much better served fresh. Live crabs remain good for two to three days, Conway said, and freshly cleaned crabs -- which have had their eyes, mouths, gills and aprons snipped in preparation for cooking -- will last several days longer. Frozen crabs can be eaten up to 18 months after freezing if the procedure is done correctly.

The company developed a method of individually freezing crabs in 30 minutes at 40 degrees below zero centigrade, which is much more efficient than the traditional "mash pack" method of placing boxes of crabs in conventional freezers, Conway said. The technique cuts freezing time by about 21 hours.

The company's expansion has been helped by the steady supply of crabs. Athough oyster production has been declining in the Chesapeake Bay since the turn of the century, the crab crop has remained steady or increased, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"The watermen started becoming much more clever in the way that they were catching the crabs," Conway said.

Last year, more than 45 million pounds of hard- and softshell crabs were harvested from the bay and, of that, about 3.8 percent were softshells, said W. Jensen, director of fisheries for the department. He estimated that 8.6 million softshell crabs were caught by watermen last year.

The Chesapeake, which provides about 50 percent of all hard- and softshell crabs, is supplemented by harvests in other states along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico.

Countries such as Mexico, Turkey, Greece and Korea have a species of the blue crab, but have never successfully marketed it, Jensen said.

In his search for new markets, Conway hired Carol Haltaman, former director of public relations at Perdue, to help him sell the softshells to states such as California and New York, where the seafood was virtually unknown and not available. The company then turned to countries such as Japan and South Korea.

"It was fairly common knowledge that the Japanese are large consumers of seafood per capita," Conway said. "So, when we found that we still had an oversupply, I bought a ticket for Japan, took several samples of softshells, and flew to Tokyo . . . I asked the taxi driver to take me to the fish market." Conway found a buyer, who took an initial order for several dozen.

The delicacy is now catching on, and hotels such as the Imperial and the Hotel Okura in Tokyo are beginning to feature the seafood in their restaurants. Handy now exports exclusively to a small Japanese seafood importer.

Shipments of crabs are packaged live at noon in Crisfield and trucked to Kennedy Airport in New York, where they are flown overnight to Tokyo, Haltaman said. The crabs arrive in Japan about 12 hours later and are served fresh that day in restaurants.

In Japan, the softshells are served coated with a delicate tempura-style batter or marinated and served with vegetables and rice.

The Tokyo market price for a medium-sized softshell, weighing about 1 1/2 ounces, is 200 yen, or approximately $1.50. Restaurant prices are much steeper, with a normal portion of three softshells selling for as much as 1,800 yen or about $12.85. Larger portions of four-and-half crabs are sold for about 1,800 yen, or $19. By comparison, Washingtonians can expect to pay between $1.50 to $2 a piece for softshells at local seafood markets, or between $18 and $20 a dozen, depending on the size.

"The Japanese are very quality-oriented, and that's the approach we've taken," Haltaman said. "They have even improved our quality by some of their suggestions, such as labeling the different size crabs in different colors and packing the frozen crabs in bubble sheets so their legs don't break."

Some of the watermen, who catch and supply the crabs to outfits like Handy, say things have gotten better with modernization.

Elsie Cooper, a 43-year-old mother of seven, says she's worked in the crab business her whole life, "I've always worked in crabbin'. I've never done anything else."

Cooper holds down a full-time job at Handy and works with her husband, Johnny Cooper, who is a waterman supplying crabs to the company. She said she's pleased with the improvements at the Handy's crab-processing facility. "It's much better," she said of the new plant. "A whole lot of things are done differently . . . . It's much nicer."

Cooper gets up with her husband at 4:30 a.m. to help him get his boat on the water before the heat drives the crabs deeper into the water. She then works in shanties, provided by the Handy company, "fishing up," which means checking previously caught crabs to see if they have shed their shells.

Blue crabs shed their shells about 18 times in their three-year life span. The watermen generally catch the crabs when they are "peelers," or are just ready to shed. They place the peelers in individual tanks provided by the company, checking them every six to eight hours.

Cooper says that in a good week, at the height of the crabbing season, her husband and his two sons can pull in as many as 60 dozen crabs a day and make as much as $2,000 a week. Watermen say their weekly take fluctuates too much to estimate, but they say that softshell outfits like Handy pay them anywhere from $3 to $11 a dozen for softshells, depending on their size. Peelers often are sold for 25 cents each.

Handy's mark-up on the softshell depends on the size of the crab and the availability of the crop, according to Scott Fechnay, president of the Washington Fish Exchange Inc. in Manassas. Fechnay buys softshells from Handy to supply his 5,000 customers in the Washington metropolitan area. Last year, Fechnay sold the crabs to local restaurants and stores, including the Marriott Hotel, the Hilton Hotels and Safeway stores.

Conway would not say how much he charges the Japanese for his crabs, but he did say there was a "good possibility" that the exporting would increase.

"It's not significant that {Handy} does $1.4 million in exports. {But} it's a start, and it's a start that can grow, " said Ryan of the Ex-Im Bank. "This company might be as big as Perdue Farms one day."