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One on One: Leslie Christon

President and CEO, Shells Seafood Restaurants

Leslie Christon
Joanne Friedrick
September 01, 2005

The foodservice industry has been part of Leslie Christon’s life since her earliest college days at the Steak and Ale chain, where she worked her way into management over a nine-year period.

Since that time, Christon has moved into the realm of executive management for several national restaurant and retail chains. She served as vice president of operations for El Chico Café and senior vice president for Red Lobster, opened more than 80 of Brinker International’s On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina concepts and held the job of president and chief executive officer at Sutton Place Gourmet, which operated gourmet supermarkets at that time under the Sutton Place, Hay Day Market and Balducci’s banners.

It was at Sutton Place, says Christon, that “I got a terrific food education and learned about lots of different kinds of food.” That love and knowledge of food proved helpful when Christon embarked on Shells’ menu redesign this year.

When she was approached by Shells, Christon says, “I looked at all their restaurants and said, ‘You’ve got some old, tired restaurants, but you have good food and good people, so let’s see what we can do.’”

Since July 2003, Christon has headed up Shells Seafood Restaurants, a chain of 26 units founded in South Tampa, Fla., in 1985.

At its peak in the late 1990s, Shells operated 50 restaurants. But less-than-stellar fiscal results with its Midwest expansion forced Shells to close 25 restaurants before opening its newest site in Clearwater Beach, Fla., in March of this year. It was Shells’ first new restaurant since 1999.

Accompanying the new site has been a trio of quarterly reports marking increases in same-store sales. For the quarter ended July 3, Shells reported a hike in same-store sales of 7 percent.

Now, with sales on the upswing, new capital in place and a remodeling program under way, Christon is optimistic about Shells’ ability to build for the future.

Friedrick: What steps did you take to turn Shells around?
Christon:
I hired a consulting chef group to work on the menu and upgrade it. We worked for four months on the menu and ended up changing out 40 percent of it as well as dealing with every plate in terms of presentation.

What specific changes did you make to the menu?
We had a lot of combinations that used similar ingredients. The chefs we worked with [suggested] offering bolder flavors through new spices, like chipotle sauce instead of tartar sauce. We brought in more shellfish and fish species. On any given evening, we have four or five species of fresh fish but have the ability to order from 42 species. We give managers the ability to offer things that are unique to their guests.

We were always known for having great fried seafood. And our best-seller is seafood pasta in garlic cream sauce. Now we offer pasta in seasoned broth and more broiled seafood. You can choose to eat light and still have great flavor.

One of the other things we did when we evaluated ingredients was to look at the size of the protein. We doubled the size of our shrimp and increased the size of the snow crab and king crab, providing more protein for the money. We think our guests can really see and taste the difference.

Even before we rolled out our new menu, we changed the grouper [to fresh from frozen]. We had been selling grouper sandwiches made with frozen grouper. We decided to make a statement and go with fresh grouper; you can tell the difference. Ours is guaranteed fresh, every day of the year.

Did you have to change suppliers?

We did bring in some new suppliers, but we have good seafood partners out there. They said, “Just let us know what you want.” The bigger species are usually more expensive, but we think you get what you pay for.

In your quarterly earnings report, you mention increasing front-of-house labor. Can you expand on that?
We instituted Ship Shape Service to enhance the service experience of our guests. [The program] addresses specific points of employee interaction with customers. We had waiters and waitresses who covered five or six tables. With that many stations, you can’t provide great service. We have a new standard of three table stations at any one time. The level of service is so much better. And the servers get better gratuities because of the better service. It’s worth the bigger investment in labor because it improves guest traffic. They get friendly, fast service.

Do you have any problems finding the additional labor?

There are some markets where labor is tight from time to time. But Shells has great [employee] retention. Because [of this retention level], we haven’t had the issues some restaurants have. From January through June, we staff up, then staffing levels drop off in warmer months.

What else has changed at Shells?
[After changing the menu and instituting the Ship Shape Service program], we said, “We’ve got two of the three basics in place — now what are we going to do to address the look of our restaurants?” We wanted to redesign, but do it somewhat inexpensively. We changed the colors to bright, colorful sunny yellow, fresh blue, coral red. Inside we have saltwater aquariums and big stuffed marlins on the wall. There is new furniture and enhanced lighting that makes the food look good and is also very flattering to people’s skin tones.

The first remodel was at West Palm Beach, one of our best locations. We remodeled at night and stayed open during the day and got guest feedback during the process. We saw a dramatic sales increase in that location, so we said, “Let’s try that in the others.” We then did the Reddington Shores location. And the feedback was that the colors were gorgeous and the food was delicious.

Next we went to the board of directors and said, “We have a winning formula!” We started to work with some investment bankers to get a bridge loan [for $9.2 million] in December 2004 to let us [remodel] half the restaurants. Toward the end of March, after getting nine more restaurants remodeled, we got an additional $6.9 million in financing to do the rest and open the restaurant in Clearwater. It’s been an exciting two years.

How will Shells approach growth going forward?

In the immediate future we think there is plenty of opportunity in Florida for growth. Longer term, when we go outside of Florida, we will look at places where people eat seafood on a regular basis. It’s better to stick with places where seafood is part of the regular diet.

Shells’ second-quarter earnings report showed another increase in same-store sales: To what do you attribute this?
A large part of it is our managers and employees in the restaurants. They are so excited about the remodeling. In Daytona, some employees called the off-duty employees just to tell them what had happened. They said, “You have to see our new lights, our new booths!” Guests feel great and are excited about where they choose to dine.

We’re working on 11 remodels. If we are able to generate these [sales] results with half the system [remodeled], we feel good about what we can do. We also have great managers and a great environment to work in.

How do you feel about the changes you’ve instituted at Shells?
At the end of the day, food is what the customers come for. And I’m pretty darn proud of our food. I have a great team of support people who help the restaurant work as best it can. I’m delighted with the changes we’ve made. It’s a great turnaround story.
 

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