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Top Story: Family guys

The Buyer’s Turn: Bill Bayne and Rich Castle build relationships — and seafood sales

By James Wright
July 05, 2011


SeaFood Business is for seafood buyers; that’s why we’re bringing back an annual feature we’re now calling “THE BUYER’S TURN” to shine a light on retail and restaurant seafood buyers who are on top of their games. This year, we’re celebrating the careers of industry veterans Bill Bayne of Fish City Grill and Rich Castle of Giant Eagle. While their outfits couldn’t be any more different — one operates 22 restaurants in and around Texas while the other manages more than 200 stores in the Midwest — they share similar commitments to service and seafood (especially Copper River sockeye salmon).


BILL BAYNE — Fish City Grill

There’s one concern that restaurateurs of any stripe share, and it’s how to fend off the high turnover rates that badger the industry. Chefs and servers are always looking for whiter tablecloths despite the time, money and trust their employers invest in them.

So why does Bill Bayne shrug off these worries as if they’re somebody else’s problem? The soft-spoken and courteous Texas panhandle native surely isn’t one to gloat — it’s just truly somebody else’s problem.

“We figure people can steal our recipes but they can’t take our culture,” says Bayne, the leader of Fish City Grill with the über-cool title of Chief Seafood Officer. As CSO (and essentially CEO) of Neighborhood Ventures, the veteran restaurant operator’s top duty is to procure a wide variety of fresh fish for 22 casual restaurants. Bayne loves the “challenge” of seafood and its many mysteries.

But priority No. 1 will always be taking care of employees, who he affectionately calls team members in the rare moment he doesn’t refer to them as family. He and his wife and business partner Lovett, whose official handle is Director of Happiness, just like to work that way. Deeming themselves good judges of character — they’ve even established a “no schmucks” hiring policy — they figure that a happy staff translates to happy customers.

“It’s important to my wife and I that we have great relationships. Instead of a mission statement, we have a passion statement,” says Bayne, 51. “We just want this to be an awesome place to be.”

The citizens of Big D feel similarly about the Baynes’ “fish joints” and the dishes served there (there are nine Fish City Grills in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone). Online reviews are generally positive and the restaurants, Bill Bayne says, are popular places for folks who want fresh fish in a casual, friendly atmosphere — some regulars dine there two or three times a week to enjoy affordable items like the Fish City Sandwich (tilapia with remoulade, lettuce, tomato and onion for $7.89) or blackened rainbow trout ($14.99). Relaxed vibes are important to maintain the neighborhood restaurant feel that the Baynes have worked hard to establish and to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

“Bill brings high integrity, he doesn’t compromise quality for cost,” says Lovett, his wife of 11 years who he actually hired to wait tables before their personal relationship blossomed. “He’s also open-minded in learning more about fish.”

Relationships with Bayne’s seafood vendors are long-standing; ties to Fruge Seafood Co. of Grand Prairie, Texas, stretch back 20 years. Bayne says such loyalty has helped the company grow at a sustainable pace.

But just because there are now 20 Fish City Grills, don’t make the mistake of calling it a chain.

“We don’t use the word ‘chain.’ Lovett will stop whoever uses the words ‘chain’ or ‘unit.’ She likes to say that we’re a family of restaurants,” says Bayne.

This family is growing. There are 15 Fish City Grills throughout Texas, two in Florida and one apiece in Colorado, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The original restaurant that Bayne opened in 1995 — Half Shells Oyster Bar & Grill, a converted coffee shop in Dallas’ Snider Plaza — is still going strong. There is another Half Shells Seafood Grill in Plano that opened in 2002, but Bayne decided over a decade ago that Fish City Grill was the brand to build and it appears that he’s onto something.

He’s got his eye on the Carolinas for expansion, as well as other markets in the South. He’s seeking franchisees as well as exploring further personal investments. The Bayne family owns and operates seven Fish City Grills; experienced restaurant operators, including two former Brinker International COOs, franchise the other 13 and two more franchised restaurants will open in Texas this summer. Along with a start-up fee and royalties, franchisees get access to a growing brand, training, support, marketing and promotions and the purchasing power of a larger company with Bayne as the buyer.

“It’s been a good way to grow the brand and get market penetration. We get taken more seriously by suppliers and the industry with a larger presence, a more serious presence,” says Bayne. “It’s increased our growth fairly quickly and took us out of the realm of being a mom-and-pop.

“The potential [for growth] is very large,” he says, adding that he’s turned down more potential franchisees than he’s accepted. From business partners he seeks a human element that’s bigger than a decorated resume or dazzling bank account. “We’re not expensive to open or operate. Barriers to entry are very low. It’s kind of unlimited.”

In every restaurant, daily chalkboard specials feature prominently, and the dishes scribbled there account for close to 25 percent of all food sales — items like Copper River sockeye salmon from Alaska (at a competitive $22.99), along with seasonal items like Alaska halibut, Florida stone crab claws and Louisiana crawfish.

The menu has rarely changed, but with new executive chef Randy Morgan on board since January, standard offerings are evolving. For every item Morgan adds, he eliminates two so everything can be executed properly, says Bayne.

“Bill and I had lunch [at Fish City Grill] one day and what we got was nothing like what we ordered,” says Morgan, who has a background in fine dining and is making Fish City Grill his first casual-dining venture. “You could kind of see the kitchen was struggling and lacked passion for what they were doing. He agreed, and brought me on to teach technique and bring it to a higher level.”

Morgan’s input has improved not only the menu — a calamari appetizer he called “boring” is now dressed up with preserved lemon, oil-cured olives, parsley and a tomato-and-cherry pepper dipping sauce and includes both tubes and tentacles — but also the overall feel of the restaurant, Bayne says.
“It’s all about the ‘craveable’ experience,” he adds. “The food, the atmosphere, the financial results.”

Fish City Grill sales hit $30 million in 2010, but the number Bayne is more proud of is four — consecutive years that Fish City Grill was named one of the best places to work in Texas, as determined by Texas Monthly and its business-community partners.

“A common phrase we hear from our franchisees is ‘Fish City Grill brings us back to the reason we got into the restaurant business in the first place,’” says Bayne.

Bayne, who co-founded Richardson, Texas-based Rockfish Seafood Grill before selling his half to his business partners in 2000, sees the business growing. But building a brand to become an attractive acquisition for a national restaurant company is not the plan. “That’s not us,” he says. “We love what we do. We love seafood, the business and the challenge of seafood.”

Despite the restaurants’ proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, Bayne takes a more global approach to sourcing. He works the phone daily to his top suppliers in Central America, the East and West coasts and Hawaii. Bayne buys a quarter-million pounds of shrimp annually from suppliers like Ocean Garden Products in San Diego, as well as about 75,000 pounds of snow crab legs each year from vendors like Trident Seafoods of Seattle.

His customers trust Fish City will serve them great seafood at competitive prices. Bayne lists Oceanaire Seafood Room and McCormick & Schmick’s as chief competitors. But Fish City Grill, he says, offers people something closer to home.

“One of our greatest compliments came at a food show in Dallas,” remembers Bayne. “A number of people came up and said, ‘You’re our favorite restaurant!’ We’d ask which one, and they’d say, ‘I thought there was only one.’” 

RICH CASTLE — Giant Eagle 

Rich Castle has a lot on his plate. The director of seafood for Giant Eagle has hundreds of full-service seafood departments that rely on his guidance on how to buy and sell fish. And it’s not just supermarkets throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland: Giant Eagle operates four (soon to be five) upscale Market District grocery stores, dozens of GetGo fuel and quick-grab food stations and Giant Eagle Express, a new ready-to-eat (and expandable) concept that does a little bit of everything for folks on the fly.

So how does one guy do all of that? Start with lots of help, a constantly chirping BlackBerry and, most importantly, a deep commitment to customer service. You learn things like that when you’ve been buying and selling for 37 years.

“We think it’s so important that our team members are armed to engage with customers,” says Castle. “Customers that come to the seafood counter have a different expectation, given that seafood is so complex. ‘Hi, how are you?’ just isn’t enough.”

That’s why Castle, 52, spends so much time on educational programs designed for his seafood staff. He conducts six to eight seminars a year in Giant Eagle’s major markets of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. The summer seminars, he says, are the big ones, held in outdoor pavilions with grills, cooking demonstrations and “product knowledge speakers” like an Alaskan commercial fisherman. “It’s a real road show,” Castle proudly says about a seafood program that’s essentially the culmination of a long retail career.

Castle started sweeping floors at the meat department at a Buy Rite in his hometown of Cleveland at the age of 15. When school got out at 1 p.m., he’d man the store until 8. Later, he signed up for a supermarket management program at a community college, but didn’t get far. It wasn’t his fault: “They had such a low turnout they canceled the class.”

So from there it was all about on-the-job training. For 18 years he headed the meat department for Riser Foods, a Midwest retailer acquired by Giant Eagle in 1997. Giant Eagle made him a grand opening specialist for meat and seafood during a time of expansion.

“I really enjoyed it. We had a great team in the stores, getting them ready, and we had a lot of fun together. Great group of people. And the more that I got involved [with seafood] the more intriguing it became,” he said.

Castle must have studied somewhere along the line, because six years later, he became director of seafood for the entire company. As he rattles off his job duties — time in the main offices and in the stores as much as possible, R&D, travel, merchandising, writing the weekly ad, price-setting, negotiating with buyers, talking to suppliers on a daily basis, communicating with store and field teams, setting the variety offerings, setting up special events — he barely stops to take a breath. It’s all necessary, he says, because selling seafood in the Midwest takes a lot of effort.

“The average customer does not know a whole lot about seafood. They come to the counter typically with a puzzled look on their face, especially when trying to decipher the difference between wild and farmed,” says Castle, who often stops at one of his stores on the way home from work to see how things are going — it’s the only time he can do it, in many instances. Customers ask questions like, “‘Why does it say color added? I hear things about this or that country of origin. What about contamination?’ They have a lot of different concerns,” says Castle.

With such a need for accurate, on-demand information, Giant Eagle’s seafood category has become a real top-down operation. Castle oversees seafood team leaders at every store, a handful of meat and seafood specialists available to all stores and four event coordinators to handle the employee training seminars and in-store promotions that Castle calls “boat loading” events.

This summer, Giant Eagle is promoting Copper River salmon (sockeyes were sold for $19.99 a pound when the season first opened, before dropping the price to $15.99; kings were going for $24.99 when available) and even brought in commercial fisherman Buck Gibbons from Copper River Seafoods in Cordova, Alaska, to headline an event at a Pittsburgh store. Even without much advertising, Castle is encouraged with how the promotion turned out, both in person and online: To drum up excitement, Gibbons posted fishery updates on the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, where information about the fish provided by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is waiting for them.

“They’re real seafood spectaculars,” he adds. “We do aggressive pricing for one or two days, fliers, signage, balloons — it’s a big event. It spikes sales, gets customers that might not be buying seafood on a regular basis or not buying it at all hooked, no pun intended, on seafood. We even let them try it before they buy it.”

Wild salmon, shrimp, crab legs, canned crab and scallops are the big movers that drive these special events, but Castle says farmed salmon and tilapia are the seafood departments’ pillars of strength throughout the year.

“Tilapia is second only to salmon. It’s a mild-tasting fish, economical, the price is pretty steady; a lot of our costs have risen on other major commodities, but tilapia hasn’t risen as much as others,” says Castle. “In terms of fresh fish it’s probably one of the most economical out there today.”

Giant Eagle’s fresh tilapia — supplied by Tropical Aquaculture Products of Rutland, Vt. — is all certified responsibly harvested according to the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices, a fact that Castle is proud of, since the stores sell so much of it — roughly 15,000 pounds a week.

Farmed salmon from Cooke Aquaculture in Blacks Harbor, New Brunswick, Canada, bears the Global Trust eco-label. Sustainability is big at Giant Eagle, despite what Greenpeace’s “Carting Away the Oceans” scorecard has to say. Because the company has not responded to the environmental activist group’s sustainability survey, it has a low ranking. Castle prefers to work with collaborative NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like the World Wildlife Fund, which partnered with Giant Eagle in 2009.

“It’s the first NGO we started a relationship with. We’re currently in negotiations with another one we can’t talk about right now,” he adds. Aside from the company’s own commitment to sourcing responsibly harvested seafood, Castle seeks strong commitments from suppliers too. “They’re going to be serious about sustainability and they’re going to improve and evolve and work with us and our NGO partnerships and keep an open ear and an open mind.

“Being a member of the [Food Marketing Institute’s] Sustainable Seafood Working Group helped remove some of the fog around sustainability. I learned so much working with that group; it gave me a higher confidence level, a sense of direction.”

Things are looking up for Giant Eagle, despite a challenging economy. Seafood sales for the fiscal year that ended in June were projected to be up, with single-digit growth. Getting as close to the source as possible is how Castle is getting it done.

“Always looking for ways to cut cost out of the supply chain,” he says. “We’re constantly striving for operational excellence, from the time we receive the product to the time the customer buys it.” 

Email Associate Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com

July 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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