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One on One - Wade Wiestling

VP of culinary development, The Oceanaire Seafood Room

Wade Wiestling
Joanne Friedrick
October 01, 2005

From a single seafood restaurant in Minneapolis to seven restaurants spread across the United States today, The Oceanaire Seafood Room has grown at a steady clip since the original opened in 1998. Part of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, Oceanaire cruised into Washington, D.C., Seattle, Dallas, Indianapolis, San Diego and Atlanta, with three more branches to open in Baltimore, Miami and Philadelphia by early 2006.

Oceanaire Seafood Rooms’ interiors resemble a 1930s ocean liner, and the menu is a blend of classic seafood fare, such as oysters Rockefeller and clams casino, and contemporary dishes like baked stuffed Oregon Petrale sole, stuffed with baby bay shrimp, blue crab and brie cheese, developed and prepared by the executive chef at each site. Menus are printed daily to reflect the fresh catches and preparation methods the chefs choose for each species.

The driving force behind the successful independent chain’s menus is Wade Wiestling, VP of culinary development.

Wiestling joined Parasole in 1994, working for the company’s Italian-themed offering, Pronto Ristorante, first as executive chef and later as general manager/executive chef.

He jumped aboard Oceanaire, serving as executive chef and general manager at the original Minneapolis location. Wiestling then took the reins of corporate chef when the company opened its second site in Washington, D.C., rising to VP of culinary development after opening the third Oceanaire in Seattle in January 2002.

From the 80 employees Wiestling oversaw at the flagship, he is now responsible for 600 associates, and that number will only get larger as Oceanaire continues its expansion later this year and early 2006.

Wiestling reflected recently on his work at The Oceanaire Seafood Room and how the restaurant has brought classic and creative seafood dishes to different parts of the country.

Friedrick: Have you always loved seafood, or was it by chance that you became involved in a seafood restaurant?

Wiestling:
Obviously [in this job] you have to love seafood and love what you do. My love of seafood has grown stronger with time. But I remember shucking and stuffing cherrystones with my mom and grandma. In our family, the person with the most shells next to his plate got out of doing the dishes.

At the restaurants at which I worked, seafood was always one of the daily menu items, so I became very familiar with it. With a restaurant, you have so much more to manage when you have a menu with 95 percent seafood.

How is seafood buying handled at Oceanaire?

We contract price agreements for some key items, such as jumbo shrimp and crabmeat. But all the chefs do [the buying] themselves. Our chefs have to have that personal attention to product to have that relationship and trust with vendors. If they aren’t in that circle of trust they will get fish that is good, but not great. Our chefs go to battle every day.

How will Hurricane Katrina affect supplies?
It’s too early to speculate on that. The Gulf got pretty stirred up, but we don’t use a lot of Gulf oysters. We’ll feel very little impact from that. If fuel costs rise, then that will have the biggest impact.

What special challenges do you face running seafood restaurants in non-seafood-oriented cities like Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Dallas?
All those cities are less than three hours (flying time) from the coast, so there’s no shortage of fresh seafood. We do tend to run a point higher on food costs because of freight.

Do you find differences among the restaurant clientele based on where they are located?
There are some differences, but the sophistication of the guests throughout the Midwest is starting to approach what we find on the East Coast and West Coast. Our [Midwest] chefs are capable of doing everything [coastal] chefs are capable of doing.

Most of our restaurants are in convention-heavy, high-traffic areas, so we get a lot of business travelers through the week, and locals fill in on the weekends. If we get a unique offering in those [Midwest] markets, the staff needs to be able to educate our guest.

How often do you change your core menu items? What is your most popular dish?
I’m proud to say that we print our menu daily for both lunch and dinner. About 50 to 60 percent are core items; the rest are crafted by our chefs. We believe we have the seven best chefs in the country working for us.

Our menus are built for novices and experts alike. There are safe adventures like shrimp scampi, but for the more experienced we’ll do raw fish or sea urchin or all kinds of challenging things, and our guests welcome that. We want to have something for everybody. There are so many different palates out there, even at one table. We have to be approachable, whether we’re on the East Coast or West Coast or in the Midwest. Our [Maryland-style] crab cakes are hands down the most popular item.

What are Oceanaire’s expansion plans?
We have three [new restaurants] on the horizon. We’re opening in November in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor East; in Miami in February at Mary Brickell Village [a mixed-use residential and retail center]; and in Philadelphia in March at St. James Place, which is downtown at Eighth and Walnut.

It takes a lot of patience and hard work to get things right for an opening, so we do things slower and with more patience. We want to put 100 percent into each restaurant.

How do you find new locations? Does the interior design change with each new restaurant?
We have a couple of real-estate brokers scouring the country for us. Plus Terry Ryan, president and CEO, helps with site selection. We look for where development is going.

In terms of the interior…the look and feel are the same — cherry-wood floors and panels, stainless steel and nickel accents, burgundy-red booths and tables, Art Deco light fixtures. It’s what makes Oceanaire Oceanaire. Still, we have to be flexible in our design, since some places have 8-foot ceilings and some have 20-foot ceilings.

Do you have a say in the kitchen design?
Terry and I design all the kitchens. We make improvements along the way based on our past experience. We opened Atlanta and now have a book of notes of what we can do better and will make modifications [to the new restaurants] along the way.

You’ve orchestrated several James Beard Foundation events involving Oceanaire’s chefs. What has that experience been like?
I’ve done three James Beard events. It’s a most humbling and gratifying event for a chef. They like us at the Beard House; we’ve had great events. And working there has added to the credibility of our chefs and helped us to attract a caliber of worker not often associated with what some people consider to be a restaurant chain.

Our most recent event was Aug. 4 (2005), the Savoring Seafood Extravaganza. We used all our talent for the final product, but we tend to give top billing to our newer chefs. We have everybody submit menus and, once the wines and wine partner are selected, I and one or two chefs will consult on the final items so they hit the [wine] pairings. We like to have representation from each of our chefs.

We will probably do at least one a year as long as we’re welcome back to the Beard House. I am toying with the notion of doing two next year, because we’ll have a lot of talent in our organization [with the opening of three more restaurants].

What are your biggest challenges at Oceanaire?
Increased consumer expectations, because each year consumer knowledge [of food] is increasing. Things that were once unique products for fine dining are showing up on casual menus everywhere, like wasabi and chipotle chiles, so you have to stay ahead of that curve.

Safe handling is always giving us opportunities and challenges. And the sustainability of seafood and the quality standards of our suppliers are big things on our radar.

 October 2005 - SeaFood Business
 

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