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In the Kitchen: Legal goes green

New salads spark life into seafood chain's menu

Legal Sea Foods' menu is driven by fresh local
    seafood. - Photo courtesy of Legal Sea Foods
By Christine Blank
December 01, 2008

Innovative seafood salad offerings, along with a variety of salad sizes, are sparking new life into the menu at Legal Sea Foods, the 40-year-old seafood restaurant chain based in Boston.

"We have just begun focusing on really diversifying our salad offerings, and will continue to do so as we go into next year," says Jeff Tenner, executive director of culinary operations and corporate chef for the privately-owned company that has 34 East Coast locations. Legal's restaurants, in airports and stand-alone units, are located in and around Boston, Washington, D.C., West Palm Beach, Fla., and Boca Raton, Fla.

Legal executives noticed in recent years that more guests were ordering seafood salads as a healthful, low-fat menu option.

"Seafood is such a great protein alternative on top of salads that we are looking at different ways to mix and match seafood items with salads," says Tenner.

Though Legal is still developing seafood salad recipe ideas for 2009, it has already launched a new Blue Cheese Salad, which includes red endive lettuce, pears, walnuts and blue cheese, presented as a chopped salad.

In addition, Legal Sea Foods offers guests the ability to mix and match with its current salad offerings, which include Chopped Greek Salad with either chicken, grilled shrimp or calamari; Classic Caesar Salad with a choice of chicken, crabmeat, shrimp or lobster; and Tortilla, Apple and Goat Cheese salad with grilled shrimp or grilled scallops.

New salad sizes are also boosting sales. This fall, Legal switched from offering just one size - "full" - at a price of $8 each on average, to offering both the full and "half" sizes. The half salads retail for about $6 each.

"That was a way of offering more choices. Guests are so much more likely to commit to having a salad with the smaller size," says Tenner.

The smaller salad sizes also appeal to guests concerned about spending money during a recession. That reality has led Legal Sea Foods to emphasize other cost savings opportunities for its guests, such as daily lunch 
specials priced at $14 or less.

"We are more mindful of the price points and we give them more options, so they can choose whether they want to have just a small salad or splurge on a larger meal that day," says Tenner.

In addition, Legal Sea Foods has emphasized daily specials that use seafood in season.

"When we see redfish, for example, coming in at a great price, we might focus on that for our daily feature, instead of swordfish," says Tenner.

In addition, when an item is in plentiful supply and is coming to the docks at a great price, Legal passes the savings on to its guests.

"Lobster was at a great price this fall, so menu prices went down. We're not going to use that as an opportunity to rake in more money," says Tenner. Legal's 1.5-pound lobster was selling for $26.95 on average this fall.

While Legal Sea Foods focuses on its history and tradition, it is tempting its guests with new sides and sauces to accompany traditional seafood.

"A lot of the ways our menu has evolved is by supporting the fish with the accompaniment in new ways," says Tenner. For example, when mahimahi is in season, Legal prepares it simply - blackened in a cast iron pan - but pairs the dish with Creamy Cheddar Cheese Grits, giving the entrée a Southern flair.

While Tenner and Legal's chefs enjoy experimenting with seafood accompaniments and salads, the restaurant's core competency remains its oysters on the halfshell, its signature clam chowder and lobster served in the shell.

"As we develop menu items, we look to complement those [traditional dishes], and not overshadow them. Our goal is not to be the best trendy seafood restaurant," says Tenner.

However, Legal Sea Foods does strive to have the most fresh and local seafood, produce and other items. "We are paying more attention to the seasonality of ingredients than we ever did in the past. For example, we use baby fennel and eggplant that is local from that region with our striped bass," says Tenner.

The chain's focus on fresh and local seafood that is available for the season drives its menu. For example, "When softshell crabs are available, we try to use them when the season is at its best, whereas a lot of folks freeze them," says Tenner.

In order to serve fish at its best, Legal brings the fish directly from the docks into its production facility on Boston Harbor daily. Fish cutters start working at 2 a.m., then trucks deliver fresh fish daily to its restaurants.

Legal supports local fishermen and typically buys from small boats. "As much as we can, we try to buy from day-trip boats, so we can get the fish back that day," says Tenner.
As a result, the majority of seafood served is from the colder, North Atlantic waters, from Canada to Rhode Island. And Legal's customers appreciate the local, traditional dishes that the chain offers. Even as the restaurant chain's chefs continue to innovate with unique salad and entrée offerings, they recognize that New England traditions, such as clam chowder, will be their bread and butter in the months to come.


Christine Blank is a business writer and editor from Lake Mary, Fla.


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