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Kansas goes green

Angler's Seafood House brings sustainable seafood to Midwest diners

By Lauren Kramer
March 01, 2010

Many restaurants are trying to make sustainable seafood choices today, but when you're landlocked and far from the water, those choices become more difficult, both financially and pragmatically. When Jeff Lewis and Ted Nguyen partnered to open Angler's Seafood House in Lawrence, Kan., in September 2008, a menu containing exclusively sustainable seafood was at the top of their priority list.

The two met when they were working at a brewery in Lawrence. Lewis had been a professional chef while studying industrial design at the University of Kansas, and Nguyen had grown up in a family restaurant business. He had opened two restaurants out west before partnering with Lewis.

When a space became available next to the Nguyen family's existing restaurant, the pair decided to open a seafood restaurant that would specialize in fresh, seasonal seafood with Lewis in the kitchen.

"As a professional angler, I've spent many hours on the water, time that has fueled 
my passion and appreciation for different species of seafood," says Nguyen.

"Our ocean is a finite 
resource that we all need to care for. So even before opening Angler's, Jeff and I made a decision that it would offer sustainable seafood, and that the logistical difficulties associated with that decision were something we'd take on as a challenge."

Angler's is a member and associate partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program and is committed to menuing and educating guests about sustainable seafood.

Every table contains Seafood Watch pocket guides and information about seafood species, and when guests receive their check it comes with a take-home guide.

"We want our guests to understand why we're carrying specific species and not others, where they're from and how they're harvested," says Lewis.

There's a delicate balance, however, between educating guests and overwhelming them with information, particularly in a region where sustainable seafood is far from the norm.

"We're the only seafood restaurant in Lawrence to offer exclusively sustainable seafood, and we see this as a chance to create a new seafood culture in an area where most people are almost oblivious to the issue," he says.

While some guests are skeptical in the beginning, once they've eaten at Angler's they are more open to the concept of sustainable seafood and appreciate the education, Nguyen reports.

"Most of our guests praise us for our efforts and look forward to seeing what new species we bring in every week," he says.

Angler's has presented guests with some 10 menus since it opened two years ago, featuring more than 90 different species of sustainably sourced seafood. Distributors have been very supportive of the restaurant's needs, allowing Nguyen and Lewis to fill their menu with a range 
of choices.

"Seasonal availability is a constant challenge but also enables us to offer our guests a variety of species each time they visit," Nguyen says.

Traditional favorites include steamer clams from Wellfleet, Mass., jumbo shrimp cocktail using wild Texas Bay white shrimp, diver-harvested scallops from the Atlantic or Baja, Mexico, hybrid striped bass from Alamosa, Colo., and farmed rainbow trout from Idaho.

"We try to keep all of our entrées below $20, with the average price ranging between $10 and $17," Lewis says. "But our guests must be willing to put themselves in a somewhat vulnerable situation, many times trying something for the first time and usually at a price point above what they would normally pay for something familiar."

Operating a sustainable seafood restaurant with fresh finfish and shellfish in the Midwest might sound like an impossible business plan to execute, Lewis concedes.

"I can't think of a more challenging restaurant concept to undertake. But my goal is to prove to the industry that a couple of guys in Kansas can create a sustainable seafood culture and create a landlocked epicenter to coincide with the work of those on the coasts. We are attempting to reframe the culture of seafood, and it is a viable business plan, but a long-term one that takes patience and dedication. The payoff, though, is beneficial to everyone."

Operating the first sustainable seafood restaurant in the region is a source of pride for the pair, and they hope Angler's will pave the way for change among other restaurants.

"We hope that by incorporating sustainability as part of our branding, we will help pave the path for other businesses to embrace sustainability and take the necessary efforts to change their offerings. With strength in numbers and demand, distributors will be forced to also make the necessary changes, which will mean that ultimately, sustainable products will be accessible to more people."

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer Lives in British Columbia

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