When the crab legs hit the buffet line, it’s every eater for themselves.
A longtime staple of all-you-can-eat and Chinese buffets, crab legs don’t usually last long when a fresh butter-glowing batch appears beneath those plastic sneeze guards. There’s even a genre of YouTube videos devoted to documenting hungry eaters picking clean a new crab-leg serving, metal tongs battling one another for every last leg.
“Mostly the customers argue [over] the crab legs because when the crab legs come out people just rush and take them,” a buffet manager recently told the New York Post. “If we have a few guests when they come out, after maybe one or two minutes [the crab legs are] gone.”
But the Hobbesian scramble — blink and those crab legs are kicked — has recently spiraled into flying fists, general mayhem and 911 calls.
Remarkably, twice within the same 48-hour stretch last month buffet lines were the scenes of brawls over crab legs. The incidents were separated by nearly 1,000 miles.
The one-two punch of recent crab leg-related public violence, however, is far from the first time there’s been chaos in the line.
Buffets are unique American common grounds, pulling together people from diverse backgrounds and stations of life. They share that particular feature with Waffle Houses, the all-night comfort food franchise. And like Waffle House, buffets can be the scene of wild antics.
Despite the all-you-can-eat premise, everyone at a buffet knows there is only so much food. And there is no authority figure like a server or chef controlling the portion size. The stomach’s id is in full control. Tensions then naturally run high in this gastronomical thunderdome. A quick search of YouTube pulls up a number of buffet fights, where diners face off against one another over perceived slights or misunderstandings.
Crab legs have also been part of past buffet dust-ups. It makes sense. Crab is considered a delicacy, a dish most people are not going to make back home. Crab legs are also easy to heap onto the plate in a giant pile. Combine a luxury food with the intensity of the buffet experience, and you have a recipe for flaring tempers.
In 2013, a 7-year-old and his family were kicked out of a Sarasota, Fla., buffet when the restaurant’s staff informed the family that the boy — who suffered from autism — was eating too many crab legs. “Obviously ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet was not correct and I’m upset that my 7-year-old son’s birth day was ruined,” his mother told ABC Action News at the time.
Three years later, a brawl broke out in a Manchester, Conn., restaurant. According to the Hartford Courant, the initial police report from the April 3, 2016 incident noted the fight “appears to have started during a dispute about crab legs in the buffet line.” Multiple people were involved in the fight, and a woman used pepper spray on another diner.
Later, however, one of the women involved in the attack told the Courant the fight was not about who was taking crab legs, but about a young girl who was sticking her fingers repeatedly in the crab leg bowl’s water. When other diners complained about the girl’s unsanitary behavior, the fight kicked off.
“It wasn’t about crab legs!” the woman clarified to the paper.
But over two nights in February, it definitely was all about the crab legs.
Huntsville, Ala., police officer Gerald Johnson was just trying to enjoy his Friday evening dinner at the Meteor Buffet on Feb. 22, when the crab-craziness sparked unrest.
“Literally, as I sat down and maybe took two bites out of my plate,” Johnson told Huntsville’s News 19, pandemonium struck.
“There’s a woman who’s beating a man,” Johnson recounted. “People are moving around, plates are shattering everywhere.”
The officer moved in to break up the fracas. He watched as two diners, an elderly man and adult woman, started fencing one another with the metal tongs used to pick up crab legs.
When tempers cooled, Johnson learned that the battle, sure enough, had been about crab legs.
“They’d been waiting there for the crab legs for a good 10, 20 minutes. When they finally came out, it’s very heated. Especially if someone is taking more than their fair share,” he told the news station. “Everyone was saying, ‘They cut me in line. She cut me in line. He cut me in line. I was here first.'"
The tong duelists — John Chapman, 71, and Chequita Jenkins, 39 — were both arrested. According to News 19, Chapman was charged with disorderly conduct, Jenkins with third-degree assault.
A day later, and almost 1,000 miles away, a similar outburst interrupted the dinner rush at the Queens Buffet in Queens, N.Y. On Feb. 23 a woman — only identified by the New York Post as Christine — watched as her 10-year-old son attempted to get some crab legs. An adult woman nudged the boy away from the line with her hip.
“I was like, ‘Can you please do me a favor? I would appreciate it if you kept your hands off my child.’ And the mother comes over and she was like ‘You already had the first two batches,’” Christine told the New York Post.
“I said ‘Listen, he’s 10-years-old, he’s going to grab maybe six or seven and we’re leaving. We’re gonna’ keep it moving,’" she told the paper. When the woman then called her a slur, she said, “everybody came over and started screaming.”
A brawl exploded inside the restaurant. Video from the fight showed hair pulling and flailing arms. According to the restaurant’s manager, Budi Chan, two groups mixed it up, one pack of 16 people facing off against a group of seven.
“They had kids. Both [groups] were families,” Chan told The New York Post. “It was out of control because at that time it was full so we were busy with customers. I know they started shouting, yelling so I just told them ‘Calm down, calm down.'"
By the time police arrived, everyone involved in the fight had fled the restaurant.