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Behind the Line: Bleacher creatures

Ivar's diverse settings, including sports stadiums, fuels long-term success

By Lauren Kramer
January 01, 2011

Twelve years ago when the Seattle Mariners were building what's now known as Safeco Field, Ivar's was asked to open a seafood bar onsite selling its famous fish and chips and chowder. The restaurant company jumped at the opportunity to diversify and today, that part of the company's business has blossomed into 22 stadium locations and was projected to reach $10 million in sales last year, according to Bob Donegan, company president. "[Concession sales are] an 
important marketing tool for us, because it gets people to try our food. Once they've done that, they tend to come into the restaurants for more."

Diversification has been key to the continued growth and success of Ivar's, a privately held Seattle company that operates 63 food establishments, including 27 seafood bars, 22 walk-up counters at stadiums, eight hamburger restaurants and a seafood, soup and sauce company for wholesale, private label and retail sales.

"Despite the recession, 2009 was the best year in our history," says Donegan. "I think it's because people were reverting to comfort food like fish and chips and chowder. Also, we're very affordable. People are looking for value, and they find it in our restaurants."

The seafood, soup and sauce company accounts for Ivar's biggest growth and has doubled in size in the past two years. With 23 employees and a 16,000-square-foot facility in Mulkilteo, Wash, it boasts 10,000 accounts nationwide, including accounts in Canada, Mexico, Japan and China. "We're finding more and more restaurants want products they can heat and serve," says Donegan. "We do all the product development and packaging for these products and all the restaurant or consumer has to do is open the bag, heat the product and sometimes add water."

The company has come a long way since its beginnings in 1938, when the late Seattle entrepreneur Ivar Haglund opened an aquarium and began selling seafood dishes and chowder at the waterfront's Pier 54. One of the three full-service restaurants, Ivar's Acres of Clams, is still at that original location, not far from the city's new aquarium. Ivar's Salmon House is on the shores of Seattle's Lake Union, while Ivar's Mukilteo Landing is adjacent to the Mukilteo Ferry Landing, 30 minutes north of Seattle.

Each of the three full-service restaurants offers a daily and weekly fresh sheet and a menu with predominantly grilled food served with fresh accompaniments. The seafood bars, by contrast, offer mostly fried food with slightly smaller portion sizes.

Affordability for customers has been a priority for the company, says Donegan, especially during the recession. An entrée of king salmon from Washington State's Neah Bay, for example, costs $12 at one of Ivar's full-service restaurants, but will sell for between $23 and $31 at any other seafood restaurant in the area, he says.

The price of Alaska cod is another example of the company's commitment to affordability and quality. "Cod fluctuates with the strength of the U.S. dollar and we struggle with that all the time," he says. "Seattle is a really literate market and if you start using a less flavorful fish, customers don't like it. So when the dollar is weak we take a decreased margin rather than penalize customers. We know it will reverse ultimately and we want those customers coming back. We don't want to contaminate the relationship we have with them because of the weakness or strength of the dollar."

Ever value-conscious, the company offered a fall promotion at its full-service restaurants to reward regular customers who tend to dine at Ivar's every 10 days. "We gave everyone who ordered an entrée a free cup of chowder," says Donegan. "It saved them $3.50, and rewarded those regular customers but also encouraged new customers to come in and try us."

Sales were up 11 percent last year at Ivar's three full-service restaurants.

Ivar's sources the majority of its seafood from Alaska, with 10 percent coming from Washington state and 
the remainder from Oregon and British Columbia. Suppliers include 
American Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, Unisea, Odyssey Seafood, Taylor Shellfish and Kwik'Pak, a native fishery group on Alaska's Yukon River. Ivar's purchases chum salmon from Kwik'Pak, using it for broiled salmon sandwiches and salads. "The oil content is higher than king salmon from most other rivers in the country, so it's 
really tasty," Donegan says. "And Kwik'Pak [has] the nation's only fair-trade agricultural product."

Buying seafood from Alaska is an easy decision for Ivar's, which uses wild fish exclusively. "The Alaska state constitution requires that its fish stock be managed sustainably, so when we buy from Alaska we know those fish will be around for a long time," he says. "That's really important to us."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

January 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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