When other kids were selling snow cones in three flavors, Robert Sliwowski had twelve. Helping his mother, Phyllis, run the hot dog stand at the ninth hole at Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry Hill, Bobby gained experience that helped him land, at sixteen, his first real gig as a cook: manning the club’s patio grill.
Raised in Haddon Heights and Cherry Hill, Sliwowski was inspired to become a chef by his Italian mother and his Polish father, Edward, who owned the Hub Steakhouse in Maple Shade. For almost twenty years, mother and son ran Chez Robert, a highly rated French restaurant in Westmont. Phyllis was there for him when his wife left him and when he lost a class-action suit over unfair labor practices and was forced to fold Chez Robert in 1995.
“One day I had everything,” he says, “and the next day I had nothing.”
About the only thing he still had after the Chez Robert debacle was his nickname, Bobby Chez. But with that, plus his mother’s help and his father’s socko crab cake recipe (Edward died in 1989), Sliwowski rose to become king of the takeout crab cake.
The first Bobby Chez Seafood Specialties store opened in 1997 in Voorhees. The store’s signature 6-ounce crab cake—made with fresh jumbo lump crabmeat, bread crumbs, flour, butter, milk, green pepper, onion, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce—sold for $5.95. Lightly browned, then refrigerated, it needed only to be taken home and reheated.
Ten years later, the price of the basic crab cake has crept up by only a dollar, but volume has leapt to about 30,000 crab cakes a week. In May, Sliwowski, 55, opened his sixth Bobby Chez Seafood Specialties store, in Gloucester County’s Washington Township. (The others are in Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Collingswood, Margate, and Voorhees.) The crab cakes are carried by Acme, ShopRite, and Genuardi’s in South Jersey and are sold to about 40 restaurants, many of which pass them off as their own.
The menu has expanded over the years to include coconut shrimp, lobster mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, and at least a dozen other items. The Cherry Hill, Collingswood, and Washington Township locations have a few tables, but takeout is still the norm.
Sliwowski buys mainly Venezuelan jumbo lump crabmeat. He says he eschews Maryland crabmeat, usually considered the best, because the lumps are smaller.
Phyllis died last July at age 85. “She was my whole life,” Sliwowski says. “I just adored her. When we lost [Chez Robert], all I asked God—I’m spiritual, not religious—was ‘Give me the chance to let her be proud of me.’ She would walk in every morning at 6:15. Whether she was making crab cakes or potato salad, she was always right next to me.”
Sliwowski remarried in June. He and his bride, Linda Safir, 49, live in Moorestown.She persuaded him to invest in a machine that mixes the ingredients and cooks the crab cakes. But the middle step—shaping the cakes—is still done the way Mom did, by hand.