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On the Menu: Core-menu plan offers quality, consistency and economy

McCormick and Schmick's buying program protects the brand while allowing for regional tastes

Proven performers on the core menu include Sole Parmesan and Cedar Planked Salmon. - McCormick & Schmick's
Joan M. Lang
January 01, 2005

McCormick & Schmick’s just isn’t what it used to be. In the 25 years since Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick founded the first McCormick & Schmick’s upscale-casual seafood restaurant in Portland, Ore., the company has grown to encompass more than 50 locations in 22 states, operating under a half-dozen different trade names. The founders sold their chain to Applebee’s in 1997, bought it back in 2001 and then went public earlier this year in a bid to launch a new era of growth.

Throughout its evolution, McCor­mick & Schmick’s challenge has been to protect the indigenous, local nature of individual restaurants while taking advantage of increased buying power and market identity.
“We needed to define specs for certain menu items and products,” says Bill King, executive director of culinary development and training and a 20-year McCormick & Schmick’s veteran. “This is especially important in an area like fresh seafood, where you’re dealing with price volatilities, and indigenous species as well as seafood from all over the world.”

King and his cadre of eight regional senior chefs have spent the last two years creating a core menu of about 50 items that are relevant throughout the McCormick & Schmick’s empire.

As part of that process, one of King’s most important tasks over the last several years has been centralizing and consolidating more of the concept’s culinary and purchasing programs to create more consistency and greater eco­nomies of scale. He is now solidifying a group of key vendors who can meet more of the entire company’s needs.

In addition to McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants, parent company McCormick & Schmick’s Management Group also operates Jake’s Grill, Jake’s Famous Crawfish, Mc­Cormick’s Fish House, Spenger’s Fish Grotto, McCormick & Kuleto’s and M&S Grill.

“We were founded on the principle of autonomy for the different restaurants, and that’s still extremely important to us, in terms of both the concept and the development of the individual unit chefs,” explains King. “But as you grow and branch out, you have to be secure in execution and consistency.”

McCormick & Schmick’s prides itself on offering 30 or more different varieties of fresh seafood in each location on any given day, ranging from Alaska halibut to Maine lobster while also including local species like Lake Superior smelt in Chicago and Tex­as Gulf oysters in Houston.

In creating a core menu of items that sell well throughout the McCormick & Schmick’s system, the company addressed what has become a primary customer base: business travelers who might eat at a McCormick & Schmick’s in Chicago one week and at another in Irvine, Calif.,
the next.

Having a core menu also creates standard recipes and inventories that simplify the business of managing more than four-dozen multimillion-dollar restaurants. And it allows the individual unit chefs to concentrate on developing market-specific products and menu items that speak to local and regional tastes. Approximately 30 percent of every menu is designed by that restaurant’s chef and culinary staff.

“That means that we can have something like Monterey Bay sardines in the Berkeley location and Lake Billy chinook crawfish in Portland,” says King. “It also means that we can take advantage of the tremendous talent we have in our kitchens.”

Many items on the core menu came up “through the field,” having been developed first as a local specialty, such as the new Lobster Spring Roll appetizer, introduced in Washington, D.C. McCormick & Schmick’s very structure — eight regional chefs working closely with both the unit chefs and King — was put in place to facilitate that kind of culinary cross-pollination.

“We act as support to the chefs in the field,” explains King.

The corporate culinary team travel constantly to visit individual restaurants, and they’re in touch via conference call every week, with face-to-face planning-and-cooking sessions at least four to six times a year.

The core menu was developed to showcase a group of dishes that have demonstrated universal popularity and an extensive track record, says King. They also have to offer variety, accessibility of product and easy execution by any restaurant, no matter its size and volume. These include appetizers such as fried calamari (served with three different dipping sauces), Shrimp Pop­corn, steamed clams and seared ahi tuna; clam or seafood-and-corn chowder; and entrée specialties like Cedar Planked Salmon, Sole Parmesan and the best-selling Stuffed Salmon with crab, shrimp and brie. Every restaurant has an oyster program featuring six to eight different daily selections.

Implementing the core menu has made it easier for the company to consolidate its purchasing program, which King is putting in place now.

“We are taking an extensive network of purveyors and weeding it down to a handful of priority regional vendors who can provide the quality, pricing and distribution capabilities we need,” explains King. “With our size, we can demand the top of the catch, and that sustains our quality standards.”

Although local chefs may still buy directly from backup and specialty purveyors — such as local oyster growers — most of the work is now done at the corporate level.

“It takes a tremendous amount of time to do that shopping,” says King, “and this is one of the support services that we can absorb at the headquarters level. It also allows us to establish and maintain pricing.”

One of the next tasks on King’s agenda is to fine tune the menu at the new M&S Grill, a seafood-and-steak concept that grew out of the company's original Jake's Grill in Portland. With three M&S Grills in operation and two more slated for next year, the concept is viewed as a solid growth vehicle, especially for smaller markets and locations farther removed from the coasts. The menu is about 50 percent red meat and drives an average check that is about 50 percent meat and drives an average check that is 10 to 15 percent higher than the seafood restaurants' $42.

"The M&S Grills are not as similar to each other as the McCormick and Schmick's are," notes King, "but now we need to focus on creating a core menu strategy for them, too."

January 2005 - SeaFood Business

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