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One on One: Vanessa Abramowitz

By Steven Hedlund
June 01, 2008

It's impossible to recite the menu at the Shrimp Market without sounding like Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue from "Forrest Gump" - Cadillac Shrimp Cocktail, Shrimp Caesar Salad, Popcorn Shrimp, Coconut Shrimp, Three Alarm Buffalo Shrimp, Sweet & Sour Shrimp, New England Shrimp Roll, Cajun Shrimp Jambalaya, Shrimp Carbonara. In fact, Linguini with Shrimp & Clams in Red Sauce is the menu's only item featuring a protein other than shrimp.

At the helm of the Shrimp Market is Vanessa Abramowitz. The new quick-service concept is the brainchild of her father, Salomon Finvarb, who founded Cartagena Shrimp Co. of Cartagena, Colombia, in 1983 and its U.S. wholesale subsidiary, Caribco Shrimp Corp., of Aventura, Fla., in 2002. It's a family affair. Her brother, Moris, works at the farm, which yields about 10,000 metric tons of Pacific white shrimp annually.

Three years ago, Finvarb came up with the idea of launching a concept in the United States menuing only shrimp from the family's Columbian farm. So he approached his daughter, who previously edited, directed and acted in independent films, music videos and TV commercials but was taking a break from work to raise her three children. "It sounded like an exciting idea, so I agreed," says the 34-year-old.

With the help of foodservice-consulting firms Tesser of San Francisco and Synergy Consulting of Portland, Ore., the Shrimp Market debuted in Aventura Mall in February 2007. The second restaurant came to Pembroke Lakes Mall in Pembroke Pines, Fla., in April. This month, five restaurants are due to open - one in Miami and four in the Boston area. Another seven units are scheduled to open by year's end - one in Sunrise, Fla., and six in the New York area. The company-owned stores generally range from 600 to 700 square feet and are located in shopping mall food courts.

No doubt, Americans are crazy about shrimp. It is the nation's favorite seafood, in terms of per capita consumption at 4.4 pounds annually. But Abramowitz admits some consumers still deem shrimp a luxury and don't realize the crustacean is accessible and affordable; the average per-person check at the Shrimp Market, including a beverage, is about $9, and some items cost less than $5. Though she cites consumer education the concept's No. 1 challenge, Abramowitz is confident the Shrimp Market will catch on with Americans.

I caught up with the Columbia native at her Aventura office in mid-May.

HEDLUND: What do you enjoy 
most about the foodservice industry?

ABRAMOWITZ: Watching our business grow. It's extremely 
exciting to see a restaurant up and running after a year of developing recipes, the brand, the logo, the décor. All that took so much thought and so much work that finally seeing a crowd in front of the restaurant is incredibly exciting.


Is the Shrimp Market 
a unique concept?

There's nothing like this out there. One of the great things about shrimp is it can be cooked so many different ways. So even if you eat shrimp every day of the week, you don't feel like you're being repetitive. You can have five completely different meals and not realize that they're all shrimp.


What obstacles does a 
shrimp-centric concept face?

Our No. 1 challenge is educating the consumer that our shrimp is [a high quality product]. People are not used to eating shrimp at a food court. They get nervous and ask themselves, "Am I really going to have cocktail shrimp here?" We need to educate the consumer that this is as fresh as it's going to get. We take care of every single detail to make sure that the quality of the shrimp is excellent, so that they're not scared.


Why open restaurants 
in food courts?

Since we do only shrimp, if you have a self-standing restaurant and you have a family of five and one person doesn't like shrimp, they're not going to go to the restaurant. It's the veto vote. If you're in a food court, four people can eat shrimp and the other person can have pizza. We wanted to make shrimp accessible to everyone. Shrimp prices aren't as high as they used to be. You can serve a very good shrimp meal for the same price as a chicken meal.


Why expand in the Northeast?

Strategically, we thought it was important to work in a hub situation, with four or five restaurants in the same hub and one regional manager. We wanted to jump to a new hub where there are enough food courts to justify opening five restaurants. With the population density in the Northeast, it makes it very viable. The Northeast [also] has a tendency to eat more seafood.


Are you receiving a lot of positive consumer feedback?

Yes. Fortunately, if nothing else, everybody loves the food. Everybody says it's delicious. The quality is the same every time they go, which is very important. After all, we're a restaurant. The most important thing is for them to love the food, and they're loving it.


Are you looking at expanding 
the menu beyond shrimp?

Right now, we're sticking with shrimp. If we can make it work with shrimp, we're going to stick with it. It's what we know. It's our expertise. Hopefully, there are enough consumers out there who eat shrimp. If we need to add one or two other [non-shrimp] items to the menu, we'll look at it. But for now, we're sticking with shrimp.


Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com


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