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What's in Store: Flexible fishmongers

Santa Monica Seafood completes Costa Mesa renovation

The Costa Mesa location has 36 feet of seafood on
    display, plus a 12-foot deli section. - Photo courtesy of Santa Monica Seafood
By Christine Blank
December 01, 2010

Distributor and retailer Santa Monica Seafood's first foray into the full-service restaurant business happened in a roundabout way soon after it opened its second retail market in Santa Monica, Calif., about 15 years ago.

"When we opened the store, the location we took over was a restaurant and the owners of the property wanted to maintain its designation as a restaurant. We just wanted to open a market," says Michael Cigliano, executive VP of Santa Monica Seafood Co., Santa Monica, Calif.

However, Cigliano says he and other company owners Anthony Cigliano, Gennaro Cigliano, John Cigliano, Vince Cigliano and Marisa Neal figured they would make the best of the situation. So they set out to operate a combination retail seafood store and fast-casual café and soon found that it would not work well, in terms of customer flow through the store and customer service. "We quickly decided to switch to a full-service concept, and trained people in two days," says Michael Cigliano.

In addition to a full-service, 34-seat café, the company's Santa Monica store features an oyster bar complete with wine and beer offerings. Café and oyster bar sales account for about 20 percent of the retail store's business.

"This is additional business that helps our brand and introduces people to seafood. People's lifestyles have become faster paced and they don't have time to cook," says Cigliano.

Santa Monica Seafood is more widely recognized as a wholesale distributor of fresh and frozen seafood in the southwestern United States. The company also has a keen focus on sustainability. While it had been proactive about buying sustainable products previously, in 2009, Santa Monica Seafood committed to buy the majority of its seafood from sustainable sources. It works with Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program for its sourcing criteria.

Now, after realizing foodservice success at the Santa Monica store, the owners added a full-service café and oyster bar to the company's Costa Mesa, Calif., location in early November. "We are trying to keep a casual feel and keep the prices somewhat moderate, so people can come in quite often," says Cigliano. The 1,000-square-foot café has 34 seats, indoors and outdoors.

The décor of the new café and eight-seat oyster bar in Costa Mesa mimics the look and feel of the Santa Monica location. "We are using lighter colors - earth tones - on the walls, along with darker woods and Carrera marble for the tabletops and on top of the cheese cases and seafood display cases. We have some unique pieces such as our Dungeness crab baskets that were converted into light fixtures," 
says Cigliano.

The oyster bar has been very popular at the Santa Monica store and Cigliano expects the same reception in Costa Mesa. "It gives people a feeling of ownership, a neighborhood feeling. Some of the regulars are singles, who read the paper and drink a glass of wine, and our bartenders get a rapport going with them," says Cigliano.

The Costa Mesa store menu, which is the same for guests of both the café and 
the oyster bar, typically 
includes a variety of oysters from the West Coast and from New Zealand, along with Alaska king crab legs, Alaska cod, littleneck clams, ahi tuna, scallops and salmon.

"We will try to introduce specials on a daily basis, to take advantage of the seasonal aspect of the industry. Also, if we have three types of oysters that we are selling in our market, we will prepare those three and maybe two more," says Cigliano.

The November menu included specials such as Baja Fish Tacos, appetizers such as Calamari Fritti and Ahi Tuna Tartare, and entrées that included Pan Roasted Alaska Halibut, Cioppino and a Spicy Salmon Burger. Cigliano expects the café and oyster bar at the Costa Mesa store to contribute 40 percent to the store's sales.

Despite the owners' focus on foodservice in the Costa Mesa store renovation, the retail side of the business has not been forgotten. In fact, the Costa Mesa store has three times more fresh fish retail space than the company's Santa Monica store.

"We have 36 feet 
of our 'showcase,' which is shellfish, fresh fish and fillets, plus a 12-foot deli section," says Cigliano. In addition, the Costa Mesa store includes a live lobster tank and a refrigerated grab-and-go-case that displays chowders, salads, fresh produce and beverages. A wide variety of wines and cheeses are also highlighted in the Costa Mesa store, along with chocolates and frozen gelatos.

"We get fresh bread and fresh flowers delivered daily. We try to make it as much of a one-stop experience as possible," 
says Cigliano.

In addition, the retail selections and the café menu complement each other. "We don't want to offer anything in the café that they can't make from the ingredients in the store," says Cigliano. Often, café customers buy seafood and sides in the retail side of the two stores, after they have eaten in the café or 
oyster bar, he added.

With the Costa Mesa expansion completed, one might think that company owners are ready to expand their retail and foodservice operation. However, Cigliano says two stores is enough - at least for the near future.

"Our focus has 
always been on foodservice distribution. It is labor intensive, and you want to put your best foot forward, all of the time," he says.


Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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