« October 2007 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Simple seafood makeover
Fast-casual chain incorporates many changes into rebranding effort
By Joan M. Lang
October 01, 2007
The goal at Captain D's is simple, but ambitious: Offer Red
Lobster quality at quick-service speed and prices. That the new
menu - part of a larger plan by new parent Sagittarius Brands
to revamp the aging QSR chain as a fast-casual Captain D's
Seafood Kitchen - has been received with marked success is
testimony to all of the R&D that went into that "simple"
"Our core market was shrinking, and younger groups of
customers were not seeing us as a destination," says Mark
Miller, director of R&D, who was recruited by Captain D's
in 2005 to rewrite the menu. "We needed new items that would
address today's trends and health concerns, and provide a real
'wow' factor. We wanted people to have to walk back outside and
double-check that they were really in a Captain D's when they
tasted the food."
Menu items like Shrimp & Broccoli Alfredo Pasta, Zesty
Shrimp Scampi, Grilled Shrimp Skewers, grilled tilapia and
Alaska salmon offered in the form of entrées, sandwiches and
salads are helping to take the 38-year-old Nashville,
Tenn.-based chain in a new direction. In addition, upgraded
seasonings, sauces and side dishes are ramping up quality
levels throughout the expanded menu.
It's all part of an ambitious strategy by Sagittarius
Brands, a restaurant-investment company headed by industry
veterans Sid Feltenstein and Ron Powell, Captain D's chairman,
to reinvigorate the brand. In August 2006, the company brought
in David Head as president and COO, and unveiled a new
prototype that contained all the elements of the rebranding
strategy. The name was changed from Captain D's Seafood to
Captain D's Seafood Kitchen, bolstered by a new logo and an
inviting and contemporary store design. The updated menu keeps
all the old favorites - like Classic Batter Dipped Fish and
breaded shrimp - but adds new pastas, grilled items, sandwiches
and salads, and more appealing side dishes including Garlic
Mashed Potatoes and Mac 'N Cheese.
"Customers are loving it," says Miller of the new menu,
which took more than a year to conceptualize, test and
fine-tune. Along with the rest of the "seafood kitchen"
package, the new lineup was rolled out through the entire
600-plus-unit system by the end of September. Captain D's is
also being co-branded with the Mexican QSR concept Del Taco,
which Sagittarius acquired last year.
"Guest counts are up significantly, as good as or better
than expected in every unit where we've introduced the changes,
and we're getting tremendous favorable feedback from both
regulars and new guests," says Miller.
A Culinary Institute of America grad who has worked for such
successful full-service chains as Olive Garden, Applebee's and
Buffalo Wild Wings - where Miller most recently engineered a
dramatic menu makeover - he relishes the challenge of applying
casual-restaurant quality to a segment that is driven by a $4
to $5 price point and speedy service times, including a booming
No item typifies this better for Miller than a dish that
combines seasoned grilled shrimp and tilapia on a bed of the
chain's new pilaf mix, under a creamy scampi sauce.
"You've got great flavors, two different proteins, an
interesting starch. That's the kind of 'wow' I'm talking
about," says Miller. In addition to the visible grilled
proteins, it's some of the less obvious touches that also
symbolize the new menu direction.
Take that pilaf. "We've completely upgraded it, to create a
one-of-a-kind accompaniment," explains Miller. "It's got a
bolder flavor, with lemon and herb notes, without being
overpowering." Then there's the core seafood seasoning mix,
which used to be what the chef describes as bland and generic;
now it's characterized by essence of lemon and a subtle dill
profile that complements all types of fish and shellfish.
And there are three new sauces, available as choices with
many of the entrées: a traditional teriyaki with authentic
garlic and ginger notes (rather than what Miller calls a
cloying and burnt-caramel flavor often characteristic of this
sauce); a sweet chili sauce with just a hint of spice; and a
scampi sauce (first introduced for pasta two years ago), which
has a creamy garlic-lemon profile. "It goes absolutely great
with seafood," says Miller. And along with a selection of
mix-and-match sides that runs to 14 differ ent choices, it
gives customers a way to have a variety of different flavor
experiences as they return to Captain D's again and again.
Key to the menu is a new "clamshell" grill that applies two
heat sources to whatever's being cooked: a traditional flattop
underneath, and a broiler on top. "That piece of equipment is
perfect for cooking seafood," asserts Miller, who wanted to
steer clear of a traditional chargrill because it's hard to
master and can cause food to dry out quickly. The clamshell,
however, essentially allows the cook to sauté and caramelize
the fish on the bottom, and use the broiler to push heat
through from the top.
"It's a fantastic piece of machinery," Miller adds. "It's
fully automated, it cooks food rapidly to meet our timeframe,
and it allows us to offer fine- and casual-dining cooking
techniques at QSR prices."
The clamshell grill drove the development of several key
menu items, including the shrimp skewers and the charbroiled
salmon, which is also offered in a sandwich on a ciabatta bun
(as is the grilled tilapia) and on a salad that showcases the
intensely on-trend combination of cool greens and hot protein
"With this grill you can get caramelization on a piece of
salmon that's as good as any I've had,"
And yet Miller is careful to explain that the company has
done all this without alienating its core clientele who still
want a piece of battered fish or crispy shrimp.
"We actually have not removed any menu items," says Miller.
"Our classic offerings are fabulous, and we want to continue
It's a safe bet that Captain D's will continue to press the
advantage it's gaining with the new menu by piggybacking on the
success of current menu items and exploring new protein
options. "Is there a place for tuna, calamari or fish tacos at
Captain D's?" asks Miller rhetorically. "Maybe not, but we're
certainly going to be looking at it. I can guarantee you, you
ain't seen nothing yet from 'D's'."
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,