WEST YARMOUTH — It starts with butter.
One afternoon last week, cook Fernando Moreira dropped block after block of butter into a large pot, before adding flour and the fat from some salt pork. He whipped the ingredients together to form a thick paste, the first stage in the creation of the clam chowder that has garnered national acclaim for Captain Parker's Pub.
"Making chowder is a very, very labor-intensive process," said the restaurant's owner, Gerry Manning, as he observed Moreira's work. "We dice our own potatoes, we peel our own onions, we chop our celery."
More than a year ago, Manning saw a business opportunity in saving other eateries the toil of making chowder from scratch. Now, he is in the process of launching Captain Parker's Chowder Co., a wholesale chowder business selling to markets and restaurants across the Cape.
"It's a good-quality chowder and it was kind of an easy decision," said Mark Leach, owner of Dennisport Lobster Co., one of the new enterprise's customers. "A lot of people like it, and we've had a very good response to it."
The story of Captain Parker's chowder began when Manning opened the pub in 1981.
"I said, 'If we're going to have a Cape Cod restaurant, we have to have a really good chowder,'" he said.
So he began working with his chef to create the chowder he envisioned: thick, creamy and very flavorful. Over 15 years, Manning and his chefs tweaked the recipe until they hit on the formula that is still in use today.
Though the restaurant uses fresh clams and potatoes and cream, these components are not the key to the chowder's success, Manning said.
"Our chowder is not special because of the ingredients," he said. "It's special because of the process. We've figured out how to meld the flavors together."
The resulting chowder has a distinctive taste that often has diners trying to figure out the flavor, he said.
"Then they take another spoonful and the next thing you know they're scraping the bottom of the bowl," he said.
In 1998, Manning started entering the chowder in contests. And the chowder started winning: first at the Cape Cod Chowder Fest, then the Boston Chowder Festival and then the Newport Chowder Cook-Off, which Manning calls "the granddaddy of them all."
Captain Parker's chowder has been featured on the Food Network, in magazines and, in 2004, in a question on Jeopardy.
The chowder has become so popular that on a busy summer day the pub might go through as much as 100 gallons, Manning said.
The idea of selling the chowder wholesale occurred to Manning some time ago, he said, but he knew it would be a challenge to maintain quality while producing the soup on a large scale (all while continuing to run the restaurant).
Other Cape Cod eateries have successfully taken their wares off-Cape. Centerville Pie Co. has a national, mail-order clientele and South Yarmouth's Cape Cod Creamery sells its ice cream in grocery stores as far away as Milton.
"That part of the business has really expanded," Cape Cod Creamery owner Alan Davis said. "It's really the perfect set up for my product."
Last year, Manning tested out the wholesale concept by selling the chowder through the Dennis Public Market, where it was very well-received.
"Why not go with Captain Parker's which has an outstanding reputation on the Cape and beyond?" market owner Andrew Crosby asked. "Customers ask for it by name — they come here knowing they can get it."
At the same time, Manning was working with the Cape Cod Chowder Co. in Marion to perfect the process for producing and packaging large quantities of chowder for distribution, while keeping the signature Captain Parker's taste intact.
"It took us over a year for them to get the same taste and flavor making it in big batches," Manning said.
When completed, the chowder is sealed into plastic bags and refrigerated — never frozen — and delivered to customers, he said.
Maintaining the quality of the product once it is out of his hands is a concern for Manning. So he has made a point of working closely with buyers, teaching them how best to handle and serve the chowder.
"I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about that," he said. "I explain to the people who buy the chowder that it's a living thing. "» It needs attention as the day goes on."
So far, the business works with 20 to 30 customers, all of whom are local, he said.
"I'm trying to get the company launched while still running day-to-day a busy restaurant," he said.
But plans are in the work to expand distribution throughout New England over the next year, he said. Two Boston-based food distribution companies are already interested in carrying the product, he said.
"Gerry's chowder seems very unique and we think it's a wonderful product," said Peter Marks, president of Paul W. Marks Co., one of the interested distribution companies. "Once people taste it, once they get it in their kitchen and they try it, they're going to like it."