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One on One: Brad Birnberg

COO, Joey's Seafood & Grill

Brad Birnberg
Fiona Robinson
May 01, 2005

The restaurant business is a family thing for Brad Birnberg. It was no surprise, then, that in 1993 he joined Embers America Restaurants, a company his father co-founded in 1956 with the father of Joey’s Only Seafood Restaurants CEO David Kristal and Director of Marketing Adam Kristal. Birnberg involved himself in all aspects of the restaurant company, from operations to supply to marketing and site development.

He is now COO of Embers America Restaurants LLC of St. Paul, Minn. Embers, along with investor Michael Paparella, purchased the U.S. rights to Joey’s Only Seafood Restaurants in 2002. The chain, founded in Calgary, Canada, in 1985 by Joe Klassen, hadn’t yet entered the U.S. market.

Birnberg also is chief strategy officer of Augeo Affinity Marketing, which has developed a network of vendor programs and management tools that support the everyday needs of small and medium-sized businesses. Augeo rolls these vendor offerings together in the form of affinity programs for its clients, which include U.S. Foodservice and its customers. In the foodservice industry alone, Augeo has over 25,000 clients.

In the first quarter of 2005, Embers inked six franchise and area-development agreements. By mid-April, there were 12 Joey’s Only Seafood Restaurants restaurants in the United States, with commitments for an additional 61 units throughout the Midwest, South and East. The chain’s growth prompted Franchise Times Magazine to name Joey’s one of three “Up and Coming” 2005 restaurant concepts at the annual Restaurant and Finance Conference the magazine sponsors.

I spoke with Birnberg in mid-April as the chain prepared to launch a name change to Joey’s Seafood & Grill, along with a new logo and redesigned restaurants.

Robinson: What direction is Joey’s Only going in the United States?

Birnberg: [The brand] has been very successful in Canada and hit its stride in the 1990s. When we bought the U.S. rights we knew we’d have to make some changes and get it accepted in the U.S. market.

We’ve gone through two sets of changes. The first prototype in Woodbury, Minn., helped us begin our franchise sales effort. The current prototype was introduced in mid- December of 2004 in Apple Valley, Minn., and Lake Wales, Fla. Both have exceeded expectations. The first quarter of 2005 we’ve received commitments to open 38 units. Some commitments are from multi-unit development groups, some are already in the franchise system.

Describe the concept.

We’re quick. [Average service time is] 40 minutes for full-service sit-down. The food is really good and given a lot of love at the unit level. Ticket average is about $11.50.

We’re quick and convenient — we’re a good takeout venue. We don’t have a drive-thru. We’re a full service, sit-down restaurant. We like to think of ourselves as pulling fast-casual restaurant diners, but we’ll never have drive-thrus. Everything on the menu can be cooked in 6 minutes, some up to 8, but everything is cooked to order. Fifteen to 20 percent of the business is takeout.

[The chain’s] demographics are broad; customers are ages 8 to 80. The core is 35 to 55; we need a variety.

What chains do you consider competitors?

We don’t think there are direct competitors at this point. Shell’s isn’t that far off, but they’ve had issues of growth where they exploded the size of their restaurants. That being said, we don’t think there is any leader. We’re hoping and expecting that by the end of 2005 we’ll be recognized as the industry leader in this segment. There’s no one in the mid-to-low-end that fits this niche.

The units seem scattered across the country. What is the strategy behind the locations?

[Franchisees] are steered to an area that is good. Being a franchise company, we are going to be a little scattered. Our units can perform without mass marketing right now.

Are you targeting specific states that have weak competition?

We think we can do well anywhere in the United States. Theoretically where we would see more competition is where we’ll do better.

The store in Florida opened in Lake Wales, and our folks there signed on for an additional 10 units. And there are other prospects in Florida. We’re really excited about Texas; a 10-unit agreement was signed there last week. That will be in eastern Texas and a very good area for us. The Midwest has been very good for us.

Joey’s recently redesigned its restaurant prototype. Describe the new look.

The new prototype is a little bigger. The Canadian prototype was under 2,000 square feet. Now they range from 2,600 to 3,300 square feet. One has a small beer and wine bar, which adds excitement. We also authenticated the décor and cleaned up the trinkety items. There’s a simulated wood floor in the customer area. We also added 50 percent more booth seating. The décor was upgraded with a nice enhanced shack/fish-wharf motif.

In addition, we had tested and opened a menu with other enhancements, including finfish paired with sauces, in any kind of preparation. We added sandwich items, including an outstanding premium hamburger and seafood tacos. We kept true to the efficiency of the concept and the kitchen and the table turns but added variety to the menu.

How is the seafood procured?

It’s a combination of strategies. Our biggest challenge is that when restaurants open, we don’t always know when it’s going to be. We focus on bigger-volume items, for both a cost and quality standpoint. We need standardization from the top down. We have existing long-term relationships with a number of seafood and other suppliers. Finally, we work with our folks in Canada on a product or two. Pollock is big, and we buy that in conjunction with them. There are opportunities there.

What’s the most popular menu item?

Pollock is one of the big sales drivers, but not the biggest. Halibut is a big driver. We serve halibut char-broiled and as high-end fish and chips. We utilize shrimp across a variety of menu prep methods. The shrimp used is a vannamei white 26/30.

Does each franchisee have the latitude to add regional menu items?

We have a standard menu, and we allow for an insert and chalkboard items. In Florida they have grouper, in Michigan it’s walleye.

What is a typical day on the job for you?

There are no average days. I spend some time on the supply side every day, looking at product or working with a potential vendor or supplier and dealing with U.S. Foodservice. They are a supplier across the board. I spend time on all the other facets of what we’re doing at Joey’s, including getting sites operational and running, and marketing.

It’s not a 9 to 5 job — I do work at night. We’re all very connected here; we do what we have to do. We’re building a business here that requires a lot of attention. We’re moving more to an execution mode. We did learning and creation for several years. The menu is pretty set. It will always be upgraded, as will the décor. Right now we’re executing and doing what we have to do to deliver value to the franchisees and the guests.

Where do you see Joey’s in five years?

We want to have well over 300 units operational, and that could go up to 400. We expect to have another 300 units that are committed, but not opened.

We want to be clearly recognized in the mid-priced seafood segment as the leader, at the minimum as one of the leaders. And maybe as one of the great new restaurant companies and franchise opportunities in the restaurant arena.

May 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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