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Behind the line: Crave-worthy menu

Upscale casual-dining concept plans for steady, measured growth

The Harborside Restaurant serves American Pacific Northwest infusion cuisine. - Photo courtesy of Harborside Restaurant
By Lauren Kramer
September 01, 2011

When Kam and Keyvan Talebi opened Crave Restaurant in Minneapolis in 2009, their goal for the 250-seat restaurant was a beautiful interior where customers could enjoy fresh food at prices that were consistent and reasonable. They crafted a menu aiming for an average bill of $40 per person and found themselves capturing the same crowd that had previously frequented larger, more expensive restaurants such as The Oceanaire Seafood Room.

“Those folks used to spend $80 to $90 per person for a meal,” says Eli Wollenzien, Crave America’s corporate executive chef. “We believe we captured that market because our niche has been providing value.”

Fast-forward almost three years and Crave now has six restaurants across three states: four in Minnesota, one in Nebraska and one in Florida. The next location is scheduled to open next month in Coral Gables, Fla.

“The restaurant wasn’t initially created with rapid growth in mind,” says David Sincebaugh, Crave’s COO. “But the popularity of the original location prompted a steady stream of inquiries from mall owners hoping for a Crave of their own. After some hesitation over growing in a recession, the owners decided to embrace the opportunity and take on a steady but measured growth strategy.”

The menu is consistent across the chain of upscale casual restaurants, though restaurants in different states offer fare suited to local tastes. “In our Florida locations you’re going to find more fresh seafood items given their abundance in the area,” says Wollenzien. “We also offer some spicier dishes for the more adventurous palates of the South, that we wouldn’t necessarily offer in the Midwest.”

Seafood constitutes at least 30 percent of the menu at all the Crave restaurants, but accounts for significantly more than that in food sales, he says. Top-selling seafood dishes include Atlantic salmon with lobster mashed potatoes, sesame-crusted ahi tuna and pan-seared sea bass. Each unit purchases seafood at the store level, which allows some regional menu favorites such as wild walleye in Minnesota and grouper in Florida.

All the Crave Restaurants have sushi bars with classically trained sushi chefs, and those bars have been a central element to the restaurants’ success, generating up to 25 percent of sales, Sincebaugh says. “Sushi contributes to our top-line sales and our bottom-line earnings, but its most important impact is in expanding the diversity of our offerings to our guests. Sushi is a point of differentiation for us and allows us to appeal to a wider range of guests, which has helped drive our sales growth,” he says.

Between the sushi bar and the restaurant menu, Crave features up to 20 species of seafood at any one time, including shrimp, scallops, octopus, eel, sea urchins, crab and halibut. The majority of the seafood at the sushi bars is wild, while species on the regular menu is a combination of farmed and wild.

The specials program highlights the restaurant chain’s commitment to local farmers. Jim Kyndberg, Crave’s culinary director, prepares a special seasonal menu sourcing produce and meat from local farms, as well as from a local trout farm in Minnesota, and follows a higher code of purchasing. “Our specials keep the menu fresh, exciting and seasonally relevant, offering more variation for our seafood program,” he says. “Through that program we’ve had the biggest impact in terms of sustainability, but we’re really just scratching the surface. We tend to look to our fish purveyors to educate us on sustainable choices, trusting their opinions, which is probably not the right way to do things. We should be watching for the hot topics ourselves.”

Despite having opened in the midst of the economic recession, Crave continues to grow, surpassing its sales expectations and planning new restaurant openings for 2012. “We attribute this success to our people taking pride in delivering a superior dining experience to our guests through high-quality food offerings and great service,” Sincebaugh says. “It also comes from listening to our guests and understanding their desire for a great dining experience that also provides a great value.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia
September 2011 - SeaFood Business

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