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Networking: Peter Gibbons

VP-product development, Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen, Nashville, Tenn.

James Wright
February 05, 2012

Quote: “I think the key is to not forget the one you brought to the dance but to give choices to those in your restaurant already.” 

For more than 40 years, Captain D’s has given Americans what they love. With its hand-breaded, deep-fried seafood specials at low prices, the company has grown into a chain of nearly 600 restaurants in 25 states as well as several overseas military bases. The company has undergone many changes in recent years, including a new owner (Sun Capital Partners of Boca Raton, Fla.), a complete rebranding of its logo, updated restaurant interiors and a move to the fast-casual category. 

There are also plenty of new faces in Nashville: Phil Greifeld took over as CEO in late 2010 and CFO Laurie Lawhorn joined the company just a few months ago. Marblehead, Mass., native Peter Gibbons came aboard in December 2010 as VP of product development, a job that requires him to provide the tools that keep customers happy. Those tools are mainly menu items that work. Gibbons, 57, is a Boston College and Culinary Institute of America graduate who’s always looking for the next can’t-miss item. In his first year, the four $4.99 value meals his team developed gave the company a huge boost when it was needed most. 

Do you think the QSR and fast-casual categories are positioned well for a challenging economy?  

I do. If you look at the number of restaurants out there, per capita, it’s never been larger. Consumers have a broader range of choices than they’ve ever had in terms of where they spend their restaurant dollar. It’s very favorable to the QSR category — if you are on your game. If not, the oversupply can hurt you. Not every down economy is good for restaurants. There’s a reason and an occasion for every style of restaurant. 

You’ve had some success with some new items.  

Yes, the Southern-style Whitefish. It’s swai (pangasius), hand-breaded, a 7-ounce portion — huge plate coverage — served with two sides and hush puppies. It’s a honking load of food and resonates on a couple of different levels. 

Is the $5 mark a magic number?  

It’s like a hundred dollars less than $5.29. Five dollars is a benchmark. Lunch transactions under $5 are a pretty good value. 

What research did you do on swai?  

We worked closely with our vendors to know what we do know about swai. Our plan is to go [to Vietnam] this spring to know more. We have strong vendors in our arsenal. I also made four trips this year to China. A great deal of our product comes from the Far East.

One of the reasons swai has been successful for us is it’s sort of a poster child for what consumers like in fish: mild, white and flaky. That makes it easy because the seeds of liking are already sowed there. Something with a more polarizing flavor, you’d have to be more ginger about the way you approach it. 

How do you help the company win regular customers? 

We do have some rabid loyal guests. So we try to get better and better at what they come to us for: quality flavor, hospitality. Consistent improvement is one way to address that and another is a good range of choices. If you’re frequenting a place you’re probably not going to be eating the same thing every time. Determining what you should have on the menu is a lot harder than what you can have on the menu. 

Trends point to higher demand for healthier foodservice items. How can you capitalize on this?  

We’ve had non-fried choices for a long time. I think the key is to not forget the one you brought to the dance but to give choices to those in your restaurant already. We’re putting broilers back in a lot of restaurants. Our core loves us for who we are, but they want a broader range of choices — non-fried choices. Seafood is a natural for grilling, and we have a good range of grilled products to be introduced this year. We’ve got probably 15 or so products in [the testing phase]. If your hit rate is one rock star every six months, that’s optimistic. 

February 2012 - SeaFood Business

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