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In the Kitchen: Serious seafood

Fish City Grill fine-tunes concept as franchise market heats up

Serafin's Fish Tacos is one of Fish City Grill's
    innovative best-selling menu items. - Photo courtesy of Fish City Grill
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 serious growth.

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 goals.

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 competitors cannot.

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 less."

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 regularly.

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 company's seafood.

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 Bayne.

"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, Maine

 

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