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In the Kitchen: Seafood sparks sales for Yard House
Casual chain's innovative menu is what you might expect at a specialty-seafood house
By Joan M. Lang
August 01, 2006
You wouldn't expect to see items like Porcini Crusted
Halibut and Miso Chilean Sea Bass on the menu at a typical
casual chain restaurant. Then again, Yard House isn't your
typical casual chain restaurant. In addition to touting a
classic rock theme and the world's largest selection of draft
beer, the Irvine, Calif., 14-unit chain touts a serious
gastropub-style menu that includes a separate seafood section
with a dozen different offerings.
"The appeal of seafood has come as a real revelation for
us," says Carlito Jocson, corporate executive chef for Yard
House. The chain, with units in eight states so far, is eyeing
aggressive national expansion plans, he says.
A new menu with a dedicated 12-item seafood section was
launched in the first quarter of this year to take advantage of
growing consumer interest in more sophisticated, fusion-style
food, including seafood, according to Jocson, who is also one
of Yard House's principal owners.
"We had a number of great seafood items on our menu,
including classic fish and chips and Crab Crusted Swordfish,
but we wanted to better merchandise a neat seafood mix, with
the kind of choices you'd see at a seafood-specialty house,"
At the same time, several new items were added or upgraded,
like Orzo Scallops (seared sea scallops over orzo pasta with
sun-dried tomato pesto and exotic mushrooms with white truffle
As a result of these changes, seafood sales have already
increased about 15 percent without additional marketing, says
Yard House has put a lot of effort behind all of its
menu-development activities, as evidenced by the growing
sophistication of the showcased ingredients, flavors and
Many of the menu items have Mediterranean, Latin or Asian
touches. Case in point is the hugely popular Jerk Chicken with
Shrimp Stack, consisting of Jamaican-spiced grilled chicken
breast with mango-zucchini salsa and shrimp enchilada with Jack
cheese, corn, pasilla peppers, tomatillo and red chile
"It's got a great combination of bold, exciting flavors, but
the shrimp and chicken make it well within people's comfort
level," notes Jocson.
In addition, its $16.75 price point puts it several dollars
lower than a lot of the $20-plus seafood entrées, yet still
gets customers thinking about Yard House as a place to get
"We hope they'll graduate to the $22 grilled shrimp dish,"
Certainly, the premium nature of the raw product is
reflected in Yard House's prices for seafood, which rise to $24
to $25 for items such as sea bass and swordfish.
"Frankly, I'd be leery of $7-a-plate seafood," says Jocson,
"and I think most customers are beginning to understand that,
too. Too good of a deal is just not good when it comes to
something like fish."
In addition to the seafood entrée section, seafood is
scattered throughout the other menu sections, from an appetizer
of fried calamari to the ahi steak sandwich - more than
two-dozen items in all. The top-selling species on the menu is
the ahi, in half-a-dozen different selections, which surprises
"I'm amazed at how well our patrons take to it, especially
the raw and rare presentations, which are very sophisticated
Of course, such items make purchasing an even more exacting
operation, because quality and freshness really count. Because
the restaurants are widely dispersed, Yard House has certain
volume advantages that are not matched by its distribution
The company buys its core-menu items from
wholesalers/brokers who then ship it to the units; freight
costs are huge, but this arrangement ensures consistency. There
are also local backups in every market.
"We have to make different freighting arrangements for
different areas of the country," notes Jocson. For this and
other reasons, he likes to lock in two- to six-month contracts
wherever possible - or even a year, in the case of shrimp -
based upon prior-year purchasing histories.
Rather than using menu specials to test potential new items,
Jocson keeps the hometown Irvine location a site where he can
really play with the menu.
"I'll put a trial item on the menu there for 30 or 60 days
to see how it performs, and to work out the kinks before
rolling it out nationally."
During the trial process, constant feedback is solicited
from the kitchen staff and servers, as well as from customers.
In fact, employee empowerment is an important value for Yard
"It's difficult to pull off something this complex with
1,500 servers and 500 "heart-of-the house employees," says
Jocson, "so we want to make sure they have a real good
The company's culinary team is structured differently than
those of most casual-theme restaurants. Jocson presides over 14
executive kitchen managers who are not only chefs, but who also
understand the business aspects of the job, such as purchasing,
which allows their boss to focus more on the creative side.
At the corporate level, he works side-by-side with someone
who translates his ideas into large-scale systems and with
another person who does all the implementation at the unit
level, including training and trouble shooting.
Another assistant, set to be hired later this year, will
manage the recipe program. It's an intricate partnership that's
very unusual for large-volume operations, but, clearly, it
"Working in creative mode is very different from sitting
there and figuring out how something's going to work
operationally," explains Jocson. "By not having to worry about
that initially, I'm able to let the ideas flow freely."
He is constantly on the lookout for what's next, in the
seafood department and elsewhere.
"We can't go [with] Dover sole or monkfish, so we have to
look at what's affordable and mainstream enough," he says. The
company has already had a great deal of success with Chilean
sea bass - a species Jocson recalls not even being able to give
way when it was monikered as Patagonian toothfish. "That's one
more indication of how much the seafood market has
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,