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Behind the Line: At Joe's, work's a beach

Seafood chain dances to a different tune during recession

Chain reps say Joe’s has been conservative in its menu price increases. - Photo courtesy of Joe’s Crab Shack
Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2009

While many restaurants are struggling to stay afloat during difficult economic times, Joe’s Crab Shack is defying the recessionary odds. The chain, with 114 units in 28 states, focuses on a family-friendly beach theme where guests share meals while watching their kids play on the patio playground.

“We’ve definitely seen positive growth during the recession,” says Robin Ahearn, Joe’s VP of marketing and menu. “What better way to get away from the anxiety of the economy than to feel like you’re going to the beach — without the expense and time of actually going to the beach?”

The casual-dining chain lets diners feel comfortable strapping on a bib, rolling up their sleeves up and digging into a bucket of crab.

“It’s a relaxed, shack-and-patio environment that makes you feel like you are on vacation, from the coastal, shore food and beach-style beverages to the lively atmosphere with the servers partying right along with you,” says Ahearn.

The Houston-based Joe’s Crab Shack had its start in 1991 and is owned by the Ignite Restaurant Group, previously known as JCS Holdings. The private equity firm J.H. Whitney had purchased Joe’s in November 2006 and changed the firm name in August. Ignite also operates three Brick House Tavern & Tap restaurants.

As the restaurant chain’s name suggests, crab is the menu focus; in particular, Dungeness, king and snow crab.

“Our theme is crave-able experiences,” says Ahearn. “We have big patios so people can sit outside and watch their kids play while drinking a margarita. Parents can introduce their kids to seafood with fun items like popcorn shrimp. We offer sharable, fun food, the kind that brings people together. It’s a fun escape.”

Families with children constitute the majority of diners, and the chain’s focus on shared food means that the average party size is larger than those at most other restaurants. “By sharing dishes you can create your own value at Joe’s,” says Ahearn. “It’s more than just the food — dining at Joe’s Crab Shack is about coming together with friends and family.”

Some of the restaurant locations are actually on the beach at vacation destinations like Destin, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., while others are situated in suburban neighborhoods or cities like Detroit and Dallas. “Each location reflects its local community,” says Ahearn. “One of the most recognizable elements in Joe’s Crab Shack is the giant shark hanging in the dining room. Many of the locations have localized their shark. In Houston, for example, the shark is painted to reflect the [National Football League] team, the Texans.”

Steampots are a new signature dish at Joe’s Crab Shack launched in the spring and range in price from $17.99 to $34.99. There’s the Bean Town Bake with lobster, shrimp, sausage, corn and potatoes, and the Old Bay Steampot with Alaska snow crab, clams, corn, potatoes and sausage spiced with Old Bay seasoning. The Orleans Steampot features crawfish and andouille sausage, while the Long Islander has clams, mussels and shrimp.

The proof in how well Joe’s Crab Shack is faring lies in its same-store sales, but the company refused to divulge its sales numbers, saying only that it is “significantly outpacing competitors in the casual-dining segment.”

“Generally, casual-dining restaurants are having same-store sales difficulties, with same-store sales ranging from minus-5 percent to minus-15 percent,” says Tom Miner, principal at Technomic, the Chicago-based food industry consulting firm. “Most chains are doing the same pricing tactics that Joe’s describes, but only a handful are operating positive same-store sales.”

Despite the fact that the price of many crab species has risen in recent years, Ahearn says Joe’s has been careful to rely on pricing to move sales during the recession.

“We have increased prices over the past three years on specific menu items that have cost pressures,” she says. “But generally we’ve been very conservative on increasing prices, especially on items that carry our middle name, crab.”

There are a handful of regional differences in various Joe’s Crab Shack locations. “We serve blue crab in Maryland, stone crab in Florida and crawfish on the Gulf coast,” says Ellen Cleary, the chain’s VP of supply chain. “We also serve regional flavors in all restaurants across our system, like our East Coast platter, Bayou’s Best platter, seafood enchiladas and crab nachos.”

One unusual criterion for prospective servers at Joe’s Crab Shack is the ability to dance. “The restaurant is the dance floor, and the servers dance right next to your table, and with you and your kids, if you want,” says Ahearn. “They dance to recognizable tunes and teach line dances to our customers. It makes the kids feel like they’re part of the party, too. And between the crab, our beverages, the patio, the dancing and the lively atmosphere, it makes a meal out at Joe’s feel like a special occasion.”

The dancing servers are one element of the Joe’s experience that have helped this chain move forward even during the recession, she adds. “Our guests tell us we have the full package: highly satisfying food, a fun, lively atmosphere and entertainment — our dancing servers and playgrounds. We do very little discounting because the real value is in the food and experience we provide.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

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