« November 2007 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Serious seafood
Fish City Grill fine-tunes concept as franchise market heats up
By Joan M. Lang
November 01, 2007
Keep an eye peeled for Fish City Grill. The Dallas-based
casual seafood concept is attracting the attention of
heavy-hitting restaurant franchisees who want to get in on the
ground floor of a hot young company with the potential for some
Bill Bayne founded the concept in 1995 as Shell's Oyster Bar
& Grill. In 1997 the name was changed for trademark reasons
to Half Shells, and then to Fish City Grill in 2000 (two Half
Shells operate in Texas, but all expansion will take place
under the Fish City Grill name).
Bayne, who serves as president and CEO of parent company
Neighborhood Ventures, likens Fish City Grill to what Chili's
was 20 years ago: an exciting young company with a unique niche
and a dynamic culture, ripe for national presence. Indeed,
since Bayne and his wife, co-founder and "Director of
Happiness" Lovett Bayne, bowed to requests to begin franchising
the then five-unit concept in 2006, a number of high-profile
restaurant operators have signed up, including several former
executives of Chili's parent Brinker International. The roster
of franchisees, who have so far opened a total of 11 more
units, also includes a past Macaroni Grill COO and a former
40-unit Applebee's franchisee.
By the end of this year, two dozen Fish City Grills are
slated to be in operation (17 of them franchised), and plans
call for a total of 50 franchised locations and 15 to 20
company-owned restaurants by 2010.
Right now, however, Bayne and his team are just as concerned
with building the infrastructure and systems for growth and
with fine-tuning the concept. The Addison, Texas, home office
is headquarters to a full complement of eight executives, an
unusually large staff for such a small company, and indicative
of the Bayne's commitment to both the culture and growth
As for the concept, Bayne claims a unique seafood niche: a
casual, comfortable environment; value-oriented average check
of $15-16 (lunch and dinner); and a menu emphasizing homemade
quality specialties with a Cajun/Southern influence, running
the gamut from familiar (fried catfish, grilled shrimp) to
innovative (Cream of Jalapeno Soup, Tabasco Shrimp Pasta). Most
important is the company's positioning strategy, securing real
estate in unique, upscale mixed-use neighborhoods, such as
corporate campuses and entertainment-intensive "lifestyle
centers," then marketing itself as a neighborhood restaurant
that customers can visit again and again.
Fish City Grill's motto is "Friendly folks. Serious
seafood." And everything about the concept points to that
food/atmosphere metric. Décor could best be described as
"neighborhood joint," reminiscent of an old seaport-town
warehouse district, with an open kitchen, exposed brick walls,
dark woods, black and white photos of fishermen, contemporary
lighting, and an intimate but prominent wood-and-concrete bar
that lends a turn-of-the-century feel. With a relatively small
footprint of 2,400 square feet, there's a very cozy feel - and
Fish City Grill can also afford to locate where larger
The large menu displays a distinct Louisiana-style
sensibility, what with the oyster bar selections and such
specialties as gumbo, po' boy sandwiches, crab cakes, red beans
and rice and fried oysters. Fully 30 percent of sales, however,
are captured by chalkboard items, six to eight at lunch, and a
different selection of six to eight at dinner.
"The chalkboard allows us to take advantage of seasonal
items and to offer what the local market is asking for," notes
Bayne. "We can take advantage of trends, without being stuck
with an item for years. And we can also offer value through the
chalkboard items. For instance, we can offer the same Chilean
sea bass from the same supplier as you'd find at a
white-tablecloth restaurant, but we'll offer it for $10 a plate
The reason this works is that Fish City Grill's business
model focuses on lower prices to drive home the fact that this
is a neighborhood restaurant where customers can afford to eat
The Daily Blackboard is a big part of this. Each kitchen
manager has significant latitude in deciding what goes on the
blackboard, as well as ample opportunity to share successes via
monthly meetings and an active e-mail information exchange. In
this way, many blackboard specials are often transformed into
core menu items, such as the popular crab cakes, which were
first introduced in response to customer request.
Other best sellers include Serafin's Fish Tacos and an
appetizer called Honey Chipotle Shrimp, a.k.a. $200,000 Shrimp.
Bayne explains: "Several years ago, Lovett and I opened a
Mexican restaurant that completely tanked. We lost our shirts,
but we did get that one great recipe out of it."
That sense of humor is typical of the company's attitude.
"We try not to take ourselves too seriously," says Bayne, "but
we do work very hard to take care of people, not just our
customers but also our associates." That mission gave rise to
the company's "No Schmucks Policy."
"It may sound disingenuous, but it's how we hire, and it's
also how we evaluate potential franchisees," says Bayne.
The policy has also led to extremely close partnerships
between Fish City Grill and its vendors, including Fruge
Distribution of Grand Prairie, Texas, which supplies all of the
One of the programs Fruge is helping the company with is a
more planned approach to purchasing seafood for specials.
As Fish City Grill moves into new territory, including
Florida and Denver, it will work with other vendors if Fruge
can't make the move. The former crawfish specialist has also
helped Fish City Grill negotiate other arrangements.
"In the new Denver franchise market, we'll be using Seattle
Fish Co., which was recommended to us by Fruge," says
"Seafood is such a trust issue," he adds. "You have to trust
who you purchase it from, just the way your customers have to
trust you. People wouldn't go into a seafood restaurant if they
had any doubts at all about the cleanliness and quality."
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,