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Behind the Line: Labor of love

Sea Island Shrimp House reconciles history with modernity

There are now six Sea Island Shrimp House locations in San Antonio.  - Photo courtesy of Sea Island Shrimp House
By Lauren Kramer
December 05, 2011

When Dan and Chrissy Anthony opened the first Sea Island Shrimp House with friend Henry Reed in 1965, their goal was to provide fresh, affordable seafood to San Antonio diners. They had no idea then that the concept would grow to six Shrimp Houses all over the city, feeding some 2 million diners a year.

Seafood still constitutes 95 percent of the restaurant chain’s menu, which showcases 12 species of seafood including Mississippi catfish, cod, Texas Gulf shrimp, red fish and rainbow trout. Their son, Barclay, still buys from many of the same fishing fleets as his parents did 45 years ago. And affordable pricing remains one of the chain’s distinguishing features. That’s why increasing prices across the menu by just over 1 percent this year was such a hard decision for executives at its parent company, Sea Island Development.

The hike was to compensate for commodity prices, which increased 25 to 30 percent over the last six months. “Everything across the board has to be delivered to us and gas is a tax on everything. This is unchartered territory for us,” says Barclay Anthony, CEO.

The price of North Atlantic pollock is one example. “Four years ago pollock cost us 70 percent less than it does today. There’s a much stronger global demand for quality whitefish, and coupled with the fluctuations in the U.S. dollar, it has resulted in historically high levels in pollock pricing,” Anthony says.

“We chose pollock for its flavor profile, and though we try new products weekly in search of something comparable, we’ve not been able to find it yet. In this case, we felt that the commodity prices wouldn’t come back down, which is why our most recent price increase was a little more than normal. But it doesn’t completely make up for the increase in our cost, so we’re still taking a hit.”

A few years ago the company began introducing new strategies to alleviate some of the pricing pressures. The Reel Rewards loyalty club was created, and customers who enroll get a complimentary shrimp cocktail appetizer as well as birthday gifts and advanced notice of specials and offers like the limited product offerings (LPO) the company rolls out three times a year.

“We’ll find a product we can use and throw it out for 90 days to create some excitement,” says Matt Charbonneau, COO. “For example, with the fall harvest we’re creating a seasonal shrimp LPO featuring grilled, stuffed and fried shrimp. We’ll promote it with pictures and recommendations to guests, and with 40,000 guests a week in the restaurants, we get visibility very quickly. If it’s a huge success, we’ll add it to our menu.”

The LPOs have allowed Sea Island Shrimp House to maintain a competitive edge by being creative and offering more variety. With a menu of more than 50 items, Charbonneau says it’s easy to create new combinations of dishes. Some are profitable, while others are loss leaders that stick around because of sheer popularity.

“The shrimp salad was created by my mother and it’s our most labor-intensive, tastiest, high-value product on the menu,” Anthony says. “At $11.49 it’s a labor of love and we’re pretty much trading dollars with the public on it, but we won’t take it off the menu.”

A new website is on the verge of launching, which will allow Sea Island Development to sell gift cards and accept takeout orders online. Takeout constitutes “at least 10 percent” of the company’s business, Charbonneau says.

Because of the value position Sea Island Shrimp House provides, Anthony says same-store guest counts have increased even as menu prices increased. “We’re selling more product, but we’ve taken a 10 percent decrease in cash flow over the last year. Our hope is that the volume will help us make ends meet.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

December 2012 - SeaFood Business

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