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In the Kitchen: Brew crew

Ram promotes seafood across casual and upscale dining concepts

 - Photo courtesy of Prime Dine Group
By Joan M. Lang
August 01, 2007

Seafood has emerged as an important vehicle to express the quality strategy at Ram International, the Lakewood, Wash., parent of Ram Restaurant & Brewery and Prime Dine Group.

"Over the years, seafood has become an increasingly important menu category for us," says James Cassidy, Ram's corporate chef and purchasing director. "When we opened the first Ram in 1971 our menu was pretty simple: burgers, pizza, salads and sandwiches. Our premise was to focus on superior quality for these products."

With 16 locations in Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Washington operating under the Ram name, the casual brewpub/restaurant has emerged as the primary growth vehicle in a multi-brand stable. Ram International's other concepts include C.B. & Potts (the same concept as it is known in Colorado and Wyoming) and two more upscale concepts under the Prime Dine Group umbrella: Murphy's Seafood & Steakhouse and C.L. Shenanigans, for a total of 27 restaurants companywide.

"We commit to serving the best, and for us that means wild product," says Cassidy, who has worked with the company for 24 years. "It costs a little more, but we believe our patrons really appreciate that."

Alaska sockeye salmon, cod and halibut feature prominently on the Ram menu, along with jumbo prawns, rock shrimp, calamari and crab. Species are cross-utilized into appetizers, salads and sandwiches, as well as entrées.

With an average check of $13.90, Ram is positioned slightly above Applebee's and Chili's. The fact that the company brews its own beer has also helped the concept find its own niche. Handcrafted beers like Total Disorder Porter, Colorado Blonde and Buttface Amber are memorable specialties.

In addition to its core menu, Ram runs half a dozen extensive promotions a year, and top performers find their way to the regular lineup. A recent Wild Seafood Celebration this spring netted several new items, including Pacific rock shrimp fajitas and penne, and Basket of the Sea Cobb, a salad made with sockeye salmon, Pacific rock shrimp and wild Mexican Sinaloa jumbo prawns.

"We're always looking for new products and new ways of using them, and the promotions have been very effective for us," he says.

Some of the company's best-selling seafood specialties were discovered through promotions, including rock shrimp scampi, potato-wrapped prawns and a top-selling crab and artichoke dip made with Dungeness crab.

"We get 12 to 18 percent of our orders from our features, which is outstanding for casual dining," says Cassidy.

The top-selling seafood items, however, remain old faithfuls: salmon, blackened or simply grilled, and fish and chips menued as Arctic Cod, Chips & Kickin' Slaw. That's not to say there's nothing new here. Being a brewpub, Ram menu items utilize their housemade craft brews in menu items wherever feasible.

"We recently switched the fish and chips batter to use Big Horn Hefeweizen," says Cassidy. "It has a light, lemony flavor that's perfect with fish. I don't know why we never thought of it before."

The company has sourced wild Alaska seafood since the early 1980s, says Cassidy. But as the market changed and Copper River became too expensive, the company has moved to other rivers and other species, and now is a huge user of wild Alaska sockeye salmon.

That loyalty has put the company in an excellent position to grow into the seafood business - that and the fact that Ram International has also worked with one vendor, Pacific Seafood of Clackamas, Ore., since 1983. "They've done an outstanding job for us, especially in the area of sourcing and handling," says Cassidy.

Ram's usage of salmon and other wild products has grown considerably over the years.

Last summer, Cassidy flew up to Alaska and went out on a salmon boat, making all the necessary arrangements to purchase the season's haul of sockeye salmon and have it frozen for future use.

In markets like Chicago and Indiana, being able to offer wild sockeye salmon is a distinct advantage.

"In the Northwest, it's common, but in the Midwest, our guests don't have that many opportunities to try a fish with such great flavor and color," Cassidy notes. "It really helps set us apart."

Prime Dine Group is also a significant seafood buyer - almost all of it from daily fresh sheets.

"At that menu price point [$32 to $34 per person], we're able to bring in fresh fish from all over the world, and we're looking for sustainability there, too," says Cassidy. Seafood accounts for about 90 percent of the menu at Murphy's and Shenanigan's, both which have an extensive daily oyster selection. Care is taken, however, to avoid any crossover between the Prime Dine brands, many of which share a parking lot with Ram.

Over the next year-and-a-half the company will open four additional Ram restaurants and Sonrisa, a new high-end fresh-Mexican concept in Seattle. With a focus on authentic fresh ingredients and recipes, Sonrisa will feature a number of signature seafood items. Although the menu is still in the early planning stages, Cassidy says it's been fun working with a whole new set of ingredients and cooking methods.

Even as the company branches out into new menu concepts and specialties, however, quality remains the No. 1 focus.

"It's been our focus from the beginning, and as the market has changed, the issue of quality has also come to include sustainability," says Cassidy. "Being able to offer cleaner, more natural products, seafood as well as other categories, is a tremendous advantage for us. It contributes to our check average, and it meets the expectations of 
our guests."


Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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