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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

Ahi tuna is a customer favorite, appearing on the menu
    in six different selections. - Photo courtesy of Yard 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," says Jocson.

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 sauce).

As a result of these changes, seafood sales have already increased about 15 percent without additional marketing, says Jocson.

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 presentation.

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 sauce.

"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 seafood.

"We hope they'll graduate to the $22 grilled shrimp dish," says Jocson.

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 even Jocson.

"I'm amazed at how well our patrons take to it, especially the raw and rare presentations, which are very sophisticated items."

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 system.

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 House.

"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 buy-in."

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 works.

"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 changed."

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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