Creating cravings - April 24, 2007

Devon and Bristol expansion focuses on individual restaurant identity
By Joan M. Lang

Watch out for upscale-casual seafood concept Devon and Bristol. After a few years’ hiatus, the seafood siblings of Houlihan’s Restaurants group are on the move again, with plans for two to three more locations in both established and new markets, focusing on affluent, high-density retail/residential markets.

“Being owned by Houlihan’s gives us the advantages of a chain as far as purchasing power and other synergies, but we manage and execute the seafood restaurants like an independent,” says Lou Ambrose, VP of specialty restaurants for Houlihan’s, who oversees not only the seven-unit Bristol Seafood Grill group, but also four J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Steaks locations.

The upscale-casual seafood grills have had a long and rather circuitous history. The first, Bristol Bar & Grill, was opened in 1980 by Houlihan’s founders Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson in their hometown of Kansas City, Mo. With its stylish dark-wood and stained glass décor, exhibition kitchen and oyster bar and seafood-intensive menu, Bristol was unique for its time, especially in heartland America. Three more locations opened in short order, in St. Louis, Chicago and Atlanta, before a trademark glitch precipitated a name change: The company was enjoined from using the Bristol marque outside of Missouri, so it adopted Braxton, Chequers and Devon Seafood Grill (all names of port towns in England) in outlying markets. Future development will be under the Bristol Seafood Grill moniker in Missouri, and the Devon brand elsewhere.

Confusing, perhaps, but the multiple names serve to support the company’s strategy of operating each location as an individual entity, with its own chef and management team. Despite that autonomy, however, the group’s fortunes have been tied to those of its parent company. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Houlihan’s — one of the earliest of the so-called “fern bars” launched in the go-go early ‘70s — was struggling with its own identity and put a stop on unit expansion. In January 2002, the company declared bankruptcy.

That same year the new owners brought in Bob Harnett, best known as the creator of Einstein Bros. Bagels, and the CEO engineered an all-points turnaround, putting a more sophisticated, adult-oriented Houlihan’s back on a growth track.

Harnett did the same for Bristol and Devon, too. New décor emphasizes a lighter, more modern ambiance, and the menu spotlights contemporary seafood signatures with an average check of $18 at lunch, $40 at dinner. Average annual unit volumes reach $5.5 million.

Positioning has been crucial as competition heats up in the seafood dinnerhouse segment. “There are a lot of good competitors out there,” admits Ambrose. The company has pursued business dining and other special occasions by taking advantage of semi-private banquettes seating four to 10 — a feature of the concept that goes back to the original location. With a core menu that extends to all seven locations, Bristol and Devon have upped the ante on quality with an all-scratch kitchen and daily deliveries of fish from all over the world, prepared in unique ways with distinctive accompaniments and sauces.

Best sellers include jumbo lump Maryland Style Crabcakes with Creole remoulade and mango tartar sauce; San Francisco Style Cioppino; and an unusual take on tuna tartare with pickled cucumbers, broken wasabi vinaigrette and housemade sesame crackers.

Sauces run to Cabernet reductions and Chardonnay beurre blanc — distinctive formulations that are also light enough to let the seafood shine through.

Accessories run the gamut from chive gnocchi and creamy lobster risotto to braised leeks and sweet potato bacon-corn hash. Even the corn crêpes for the enchiladas are made from scratch. Each unit chef has considerable leeway in designing seasonal specialties, such as Tandoori Marinated Tilapia and Pan Seared Potato Wrapped Grouper. In addition, there are always six to eight nightly fish specials, served broiled, grilled or seared. At any given time, the seasonal items might account for 33 to 50 percent of sales; a real hit might account for 60 to 70 orders a night out of 300 covers.

The real challenge, however, is executing a complex menu of scratch-made preparations and fresh seafood, which requires considerable skill to manage.

“Fresh seafood is much more difficult and demanding to work with than prime beef, in everything from shelf life to preparation,” he explains.

Daily delivery is key. At the Houlihan’s Restaurants support center in Kansas City, VP of Purchasing Murray Meikenhous contracts for seafood staples, such as shrimp, crab and calamari, and handles all purveyor inspections and specs. The individual chefs are responsible for their own daily ordering from a handful of primary suppliers (including Connelly Seafood in Boston), as well as local sources. “Otherwise, you simply can’t get the quality and freshness we want to provide our guests,” says Ambrose.

In addition, the local chefs have the support of VP of Culinary Dan Admire, Manager of Culinary Michael Pallante and Director of Culinary Operations George Atsangbe, who are collectively responsible for approximately 85 to 90 percent of the menu, and for chef training, follow-up and trouble shooting.

“For any significant new menu introduction, the chefs are brought here [to headquarters] for a three- to four-day training session,” explains Ambrose. In addition to the chef, each location has two sous chefs, for maximum culinary talent as well as a built-in succession plan.

Kitchen operating systems emphasize quality, waste reduction and productivity. “We have all that in place,” says Ambrose. “For instance, making chowder four times a week is cost- and quality-effective; making it every day is not. That puts a lot of importance on forecasting and purchasing.”

What matters most though, according to Ambrose, is the quality and passion behind the product. “With the menu we’ve developed, we’re creating cravings. That’s the best hook we have.”

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine April 2007