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In the Kitchen: Simple seafood makeover

Fast-casual chain incorporates many changes into rebranding effort

 - Photo courtesy of Captain D's
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" plan.

"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 drive-thru trade.

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 topping.

"With this grill you can get caramelization on a piece of salmon that's as good as any I've had," 
says Miller.

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 serving them."

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, Maine


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