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Seafood Restaurateurs' Success

Seafood Restaurateurs' Success

Secrets Behind a Winning Formula

You know you’ve made it big when Julian P. Van Winkle III considers you a good pal and has bragging rights to a signature dish on your menu. The president of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, which is responsible for producing some of the finest bourbon out of Kentucky, Van Winkle is a third-generation whiskey man with a passion for good food.

The first time Van Winkle hosted a bourbon dinner at the Louisville-based Seviche, he suggested the chef make a tuna Old Fashioned. That made sense to Anthony Lamas, proprietor/chef of the seafood-focused Latin restaurant, who set out to re-imagine the classic bourbon cocktail in an edible version.

“We just had fun with it,” recalls Lamas, who presented tuna ceviche in Old Fashioned rocks glasses. To create it, they drizzled over the fish a marinade using Bluegrass Soy Sauce—fermented in bourbon-infused oak barrels—and orange-pineapple salsa with a beautiful orange segment on top. It was such a hit that it’s been a permanent staple on the menu, and Lamas features it at charity events around town.

But beyond the glamorous friends and fêtes, it’s a sigh of relief for Lamas that Louisville, a town known more for Southern-focused cuisine, has embraced his Latin seafood concept with 14 ceviche options on the menu. Opening Seviche was a risky move that has paid off for him during its 11 years in operation.

“There are a lot of people in the area who will tell us that they won’t try certain seafood unless it comes from our restaurant,” says Lamas. “We like that we’ve built that reputation. Customers know that I am very particular and we’ve proven ourselves by sourcing the best ingredients possible.”

A California native with Latin roots, Lamas was determined to go bold with the type of food he grew up with and complement that with culinary training. He was also elated to discover that Louisville is the largest UPS hub in the country, which means that it’s easy to get seafood overnighted. He relishes in the fact that he can get fresh tuna, Alaskan salmon and Maine lobsters and transform them into masterpieces.

The local critics, of course, love every morsel he cranks out. “One food critic wrote,” Lamas recalls, “’Follow the macadamia-crusted sea bass and you’ll find Anthony Lamas,’ and another critic called me ‘the man who introduced us to ceviche.’ I didn’t invent it, but when I moved (to Louisville) no one really knew of it.” They certainly know now.

Working at seafood restaurants has come full circle for Dave Quillen, who started in the industry at 16 in a small, privately owned seafood eatery in Delaware and is now a managing partner at Joe’s Stone Crab restaurants in Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. In between, he worked at Red Lobster and some small regional chains, which he says helped prepare him for his current role with the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group.

What enticed him to join LEYE is that even though the Chicago-based corporation owns more than 100 restaurants nationwide, including Joe’s, it offered a similar vibe he grew to love when he was working at his first job as a teenager.

“Now I am not the guy cutting the fish, but I am back to a very family-oriented atmosphere where we have a lot of autonomy and a lot of control when it comes to seafood,” Quillen says. “We buy from anywhere and everywhere. We buy things from New Zealand, from Boston, from Canada, and all over the world to ensure that we get the best possible product.”

Quillen says that what sets his restaurants apart from other corporate entities is that they routinely taste different options, pick the best ones and then negotiate prices.

“We always try to negotiate as best as we can because we’re busy and we sell a lot of it, so we hope that we can, based on volume, get the best possible price,” he explains. “It really comes down to the quality of the product. That’s the first factor here as opposed to some other chains and corporate environments where quality is not necessarily going to be their priority.”

For Steve LaHaie, the senior vice president for Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago and Schaumburg, Ill., knowledge is power—particularly in terms of seafood. It’s been around since 1984, and LaHaie cites quality seafood, fresh ingredients prepared simply and long-term relationships with vendors as keys to their success. But his biggest accomplishment is creating one of the most food-educated staffs in Chicagoland.

“We have done a really good job of identifying where the seafood comes from,” he says. “We have a shift meeting every day during lunch and dinner, and usually they will discuss some product. The seafood education has been critical to the marketing of the restaurant.”