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Behind the Line: Grilling a new selection

10-year old Kona Grill survives amid political turmoil

Kona Grill customers requested that more seafood be
    added to the menu. - Photo courtesy of Kona Grill
By Lauren Kramer
August 01, 2009

Many restaurants say they pay attention to diners' feedback, but actual changes as a result of that feedback are not always forthcoming. Kona Grill recently completed a menu overhaul as a direct result of its guest advice, adding an array of seafood dishes to meet the demands for healthful fare, without increasing prices.

"Feedback suggested we didn't have enough offerings in our seafood selection and diners wanted more," says Zach Bredemann, executive chef of the 22-unit upscale dining chain in Scottsdale, Ariz. "People want healthier food, and seafood is considered healthier than fried chicken. So we're trying to change our menu around that."

Eighty percent of the menu changed when the new version launched company wide on June 1, says Bredemann. Three new sushi specials were added to Kona's sushi bar, the most popular of which is the tequila sea bass roll. The tempura-battered sea bass comes with jalapeno, cilantro and avocado, wrapped in soy paper and served with a tequila-lime sauce.

"Our entrée menu features a miso-sake marinated sea bass, and any leftovers from that are ferried to the sushi bar where they find their way into the sea bass roll. This way we get maximum usage out of our fish," says Bredemann.

The tuna carpaccio, which consists of sashimi topped with wasabi mayonnaise, daikon sprouts and ponzu sauce served with fresh arugula, is also new to the menu.

The sushi bar complements the main grill and informs guests that the seafood served at the bar is incredibly fresh, Bredemann says.

"Guests know the seafood is going to be fresh as we're serving the same types of seafood in the sushi bar as we are in the kitchen. And sushi is popular, so we're trying to maximize that popularity by coming up with more seafood selections," he says.

New appetizers include the ahi wonton crisps, and an entrée addition is a seafood linguine with mussels, scallops, shrimp and clams tossed in marinara sauce.

"In the next few weeks we'll be doing a shrimp and scallop entrée, and we're hoping to feature a fresh fish special by the end of the year, possibly a porcini-crusted grouper," he says.

While guest feedback reflected suggestions on other proteins on Kona Grill's menu, Bredemann says most of the changes to the new menu were in seafood offerings.

"That's where we felt we could help our guests out the most," he explains. "I'm working on other proteins as well, such as the steaks and chicken dishes, but the majority of the work that's going on is sea-
food related."

The menu overhaul, the company's largest menu changes in its 10-plus years, was an attempt for the chain to reinvent itself and remind diners 
to come back and try some 
new dishes.

"The main impetus for these changes was guest feedback," Bredemann says. "People get tired of eating the same thing and we wanted to create different offerings for those who've been our customers for years."

Kona Grill was accused of having a "static future" in May by the company's second-largest shareholder, Mill Road Capital L.P. Thomas Lynch, senior managing director of Greenwich, Conn.-based Mill Road, said Kona was "at a crossroads" and did not have the capital required to resume growth at the end of 2009. Mill Road has twice offered to purchase Kona Grill (this year and last), and already owns 10 percent of 
the company.

The crossroads Lynch is referring to involves the May resignation of Kona's CEO, Marcus Jundt. In December 2008, the company had announced it would be selling discounted shares to Jundt's father, James Jundt, who owned 4.9 percent of the company's stock. Complaints about this sale resulted in shareholders withholding their support of Marcus Jundt, and his resignation six months later. Mark Bartholomay is serving as interim president and CEO until a permanent successor to Jundt is named.

Amid this political turmoil, adding new menu items in a recession without raising prices was a challenge, but Bredemann says a few changes were implemented in the kitchen to make it financially feasible.

"We've just signed a new shrimp contract that saves us $1.20 per pound on shrimp," says Bredemann. "And we've switched to a different type of potato that we can use skin-on. In the past, we spent a lot of time peeling potatoes for mashed potatoes, which is one of our staple side dishes. That took a lot of time, which cost us in labor."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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