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Behind the Line: All in the family

Captain George’s chain a ‘testament to the American dream’

By Lauren Kramer
January 05, 2012

Family-owned seafood restaurants are a dime a dozen along the U.S. coastline, but Captain George’s is distinguished by its sheer volume. The combined seating capacity for the Virginia Beach, Va., chain, with restaurants in three states, is a whopping 3,000. Individual restaurants accommodate anywhere from 400 to 900 diners at a time.

The patriarch at the helm of the family business is George Pitsilides, 58, who worked at his parents’ cafeteria by the age of 11 and always dreamed of running his own restaurant. That day came in 1975, when he and his wife, Sherry, opened The Hampton House in Hampton, Va., and again two years later when he opened The Fisherman’s Wharf on Virginia Beach’s Hampton Creek. Its immediate success prompted him to turn The Hampton House into the first Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant, a 350-seat location featuring a buffet with more than 70 dishes.

By 1993 there were Captain George’s restaurants in Pungo, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg, Va., and the chain was grossing more than $15 million a year. After the Fisherman’s Wharf closed in 1998, locations in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Kill Devil Hills, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, opened. And the Captain George’s restaurants in Virginia Beach and Kill Devil Hills added a Just George’s Sports Bar theme to each location in 2003 and 2009, respectively.

Today the couple’s five children are involved in the restaurant chain’s day-to-day operations. Kristina Pitsilides-Chastain is VP while her husband, Tim Chastain, serves as executive chef. Nicole Pitsilides-Perkins is comptroller and head of human resources, and her husband, Mike Perkins, is general manager. Other family members have filled roles ranging from servers, cashiers, buffet runners and bussers to marketing directors and banquet coordinators.

“With the exception of our directors of operations and purchasing, we have family members in all the key positions,” says Pitsilides-Chastain. “That can be a challenge in a family-run business, because the viewpoints of the first and second generations tend to be different.”

All of the Captain George’s Restaurants are buffet-style, open daily for dinner and for lunch on Sundays. The fluctuation of seafood prices has been a major challenge for the business, Pitsilides-Chastain says, and in 2010 the company’s buffet price had its largest increase in a decade, jumping from $29 to $31 per person.

“The last few years have been extremely hard on food costs and the biggest hit for us was Alaskan snow crab legs, which went up in price 38 percent, an insane amount, largely due to restricted quotas,” she says. “They’re the most eaten item on the menu and we go through a million pounds of crab legs a year. Because we can’t just change our prices like an a la carte restaurant can, those price fluctuations can really hurt us.”

Decreasing the choices at the buffet was never an option, and the company tried to cut back on costs in other ways. “We’ll try to control utilities better, adjust payroll percentages and encourage our purchasing director to seek out better prices on non-seafood items,” she says. “But we’d never sacrifice the important items on our buffet.”

Many of the buffet features have remained since the first Captain George’s opened more than 30 years ago. Seafood casserole, clam chowder, crab imperial, she-crab soup and the Norfolk special are some of the standard seafood entrées derived from recipes George Pitsilides developed. “To keep up with the times and give our chefs some autonomy we always have three broiled fish specials, and the chefs create their accompanying sauces,” Pitsilides-Chastain says.

Captain George’s tries to source its seafood domestically first and most often, working with purveyors such as Trident Seafoods, Peter Pan and Westward for its crab legs. Shrimp is sourced from North Carolina and the Mississippi Gulf shore, oysters are sourced from the James River and the Pamlico Sound and clams are from the Eastern Shore or James River. The buffet also features wild salmon, supplemented by farmed Chilean salmon when necessary, South American mahimahi, Argentinian flounder when domestic flounder is unavailable, and New Zealand greenlipped mussels.

The recession has certainly affected business at Captain George’s, but Pitsilides-Chastain says the chain that grossed $28 million last year has never needed to run coupon specials to bring in business.

“We’ve seen little changes, such as Christmas parties with reduced numbers, but our take-out numbers have increased and we’ve continued to grow over the last 10 years,” she says. “I think we’ve been lucky to weather this horrible economy, mainly because of our philosophy, which is excellent food, served by highly professional and friendly staff, in a beautiful, updated atmosphere. We firmly believe that if those constants don’t change, people will continue to come in.”

George Pitsilides still runs the line some nights, and whatever location you go to, you’ll find a Pitsilides family member.

“My father’s parents were immigrants from Cyprus,” Pitsilides-Chastain says. “The fact that he was able to build a restaurant corporation like this is a beautiful testament to the American dream.”

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia
 
January 2012 - SeaFood Business

 

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