« April 2007 Table of Contents
Trend Watch: Fish poised for growth
Seafood restaurant concepts buck the casual-dining downturn
By Lauren Kramer
April 01, 2007
A number of the country's largest varied-menu casual-dining
chains have been struggling, according to the 2007 Top 100
Emerging Chain Concept Report from Technomic Information
Services of Chicago. Applebee's, for instance, was down 33
percent in net income for the third quarter of 2006, which
ended Sept. 24, compared to the same period in 2005, possibly
due to menu fatigue and a changing value perception on the part
of their customer base, according to the report.
"Casual dining as a whole took a hit last year," says Eric
Giandelone, editorial manager at Technomic. "It's not specific
to one chain. Consumers were squeezed by credit card debt, high
interest rates and gas increases, especially in the summer
But at the same time, there's a tide of emerging seafood
chains that are thriving and appear poised for large- scale
growth in the next few years.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room, Fish City Grill and Up The Creek
Restaurants are similar only in their seafood menus and the
growth each company is charting. Each offers a different
concept, carefully positioning itself to occupy a niche in the
Dallas-based Fish City Grill expanded from five restaurants
in 2005 to 14 today, with between eight and 10 more stores
opening this year.
"We're a casual neighborhood seafood joint with great
quality, variety and value in a small, cozy, sanctuary-like
store," says founder Bill Bayne. The restaurants are located in
Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Florida, typically in
The menus offer traditional and innovative preparations,
from fried catfish and pot roast to Tabasco shrimp pasta and
Oyster Nachos. What sets them apart, says Bayne, is a
propensity not to skimp on quality or choose ingredients based
"Our chalkboard is truly unique and accounts for over 40
percent of our sales," he says. 'We offer five to six different
fish and shellfish items that change twice a day. This allows
us to take advantage of seasonal seafood items and to prepare
dishes that appeal to the taste of each particular store's
Fish City Grill is succeeding because of its combination of
familiar and lesser-known menu items, says Robert Nyman, a
restaurant consultant with The Nyman Group in Scottsdale,
"As diners look for balance in their diet, they look
for recognizable seafood items. At Fish City Grill, they
enhance the seafood dining experience by portraying new, less
familiar seafood in addition to the usual staples, and make
their dishes more interesting through inventive glazes, sauces
and accompaniments. This is a formula for success because
guests find the approach and menu offerings appealing," says
The five company-owned Fish City Grills have average annual
sales of $1.5 million. Growing through franchisees, Bayne hopes
to have a total of 70 stores in the next five years, 20 of them
At the other end of the design and service scale is The
Oceanaire Seafood Room, an upscale dining concept with 12
"They've taken a steak house formula and cleverly swapped
meat for fish," says Michael Whiteman, a consultant with the
Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co. of Brooklyn, N.Y. "The
result is a concept that people instantly understand."
The Oceanaire menu reflects an "innovative yet nostalgic"
approach to seafood dining, with 60 percent core items and 40
percent created by the culinary team in each market, based on
regionality, seasonality and freshness, says Wade Wiestling, VP
of culinary development.
"What Oceanaire has done is take what's been a
tried-and-true style and repackaged it to make it more hip,"
says Nyman. "In the process, they've hit a nerve with a
different marketplace, moving away from the crusty seafood
house of the past, and creating a seafood house for the 21st
century. They've stayed within the urban-suburban major markets
of the country, and as they get more acceptance, they will move
to tertiary markets. The opportunity for them, depending on how
they perform, is very strong."
Expansion is definitely on the to-do list at Oceanaire, a
privately held company with more than 200 shareholders and
average sales of $5.5 million per unit. "It's easy to envision
between 20 and 40 new restaurants in the next 10 years,"
Wiestling says. The company has restaurants in Dallas,
Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta,
Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Philadelphia, Houston and
Applebees founder Bill Palmer believed there was a void in
the seafood dining category in the late 1990s. He went on to
create Up The Creek Restaurants, a casual-dining seafood
concept with a fun ambience, fast, friendly service and a
variety of dishes with wide appeal.
Up the Creek has 13 locations, and has agreements with nine
franchise groups that will grow the brand to 80 restaurants by
"We'll continue to grow through roughly 75 percent
franchising and 25 percent company store development," says
Gary Cockerill, marketing director.
Up The Creek is distinguished by a wide array of seafood but
also includes steaks, pasta and chicken. "This allows the guest
greater choice, so they come back to us more often than they
might frequent other restaurants that have a more tightly
defined menu," says Cockerill.
It's particularly popular among parents with children. When
they walk through the door, kids are greeted by a 400-gallon
saltwater aquarium, and receive a free Up The Creek Frisbee
with every meal. Adults enjoy the menu section titled "You're
The Chef," where they can create their own entrée by choosing
from a selection of fish, toppings and preparation style.
Five dinner entrées feature a sampling of menu offerings on
one plate, and each restaurant offers regional menu items, such
as walleye in North Dakota.
Marketing efforts at Up The Creek are focused on loyalty
programs and local store marketing. But the restaurant's curb
appeal alone generates a large number of first-time guests. "We
often hear from our guests that the building has a very
inviting look, and at night the lighting is rich, warm and
different from other restaurants," Cockerill says.
As each restaurant maps its future growth, one feature they
share is the tendency to introduce diners to new seafood items
in a familiar format that encourages experimentation. Up The
Creek allows diners to customize their plates, Fish City Grill
offers a mixture of known and less familiar seafood on its menu
and The Oceanaire presents its seafood in a inviting steak
house-style format. For each one, the recipe
Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British