Q&A: Roger Berkowitz sets the record straight
By April Forristall, SeafoodSource.com assistant editor
Published on 13 September, 2011
Legal Sea Foods’ edgy ad campaign, released this week, is causing a stir among the environmental community, including Greenpeace. However, Roger Berkowitz, the Boston-based restaurant chain’s president and CEO, tells SeafoodSource that the goal is not to antagonize environmentalists but to spark a dialogue on sustainable seafood among consumers. Berkowitz also talks about the company’s new Legal Haborside restaurant on the Boston waterfront. Opened in April, the ambitious three-floor, 24,000-square-foot, 600-seat location is now the city’s largest restaurant. It also features a seafood display case.
Forristall: How did you come up with the concept for the new ad campaign?
Berkowitz: Sustainability has been on everyone’s mind for a long time. [Legal] held a sustainable seafood dinner [early this year], and it was clear then that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what people should and should not be eating. The idea here was to continue the dialogue, but in the meantime it’s kind of business as usual.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The idea was not to go after environmental groups — it was to further educate the consumer that fish is abundant in many species and safe to eat in terms of conservation.
How do you feel about the reaction so far from environmental groups?
It’s interesting. At heart I’m an environmentalist myself. I belong to a number of these groups and there are a number of groups that do try to get it right. Some groups have sort of this mind set of “we’ve got to save the fish at all costs,” and sometimes all costs means at the expense of the infrastructure. For every job on a boat there’s seven behind that on land that contribute to the infrastructure. So it really becomes of balancing act.
Rather than make people fearful of fish consumption let’s make sure that they are intelligent about their fish consumption. And I guess the other thing was to underscore the fact that, yes, Legal Sea Foods is in the fish business and we’re all about quality assurance. But I think, too, that we need to let the consumer know that we’re going to safeguard them in terms of what we put on the menu for them. The irony is that all of the fish in the ads are sustainable, so how can anyone get angry? It’s kind of a wink to environmental groups, but also a way to educate the consumer on what’s plentiful and abundant and what’s being rebuilt.
What is the goal of the ad campaign?
I think what I’m trying to do is just open up a dialogue about what people could and should be eating and how they make their choices. They don’t often hear that. Most of the information they’re getting these days is from environmental groups and not from the end-user, and the end-user for what ever reason is shocked and just wants to take the path of least resistance. I think we have a responsibility to let people know how we’re thinking and what we’re doing.
What is Legal’s sustainable seafood policy?
We only serve fish deemed sustainable by [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service]. There are so many different groups out there that give their label or seal of approval, or if you don’t have this label or this approval it may not be OK to eat. For us, it’s how we look at the industry and how we assess the availability of stocks, and we certainly wouldn’t put any particular stock in further jeopardy if we saw that there was an issue there. For example, Chilean sea bass is perfectly good to eat; it tastes good. But there’s not enough science in there that proves it’s sustainable at the rates it’s being harvested. I think that there are some sustainable areas for Chilean sea bass, but overall the population could theoretically be at risk. I don’t have enough information and as such, I’m not going to go blindly into it and say I’m going to carry Chilean sea bass and potentially exacerbate the situation.
We believe that there has to be an open dialogue to better understand the complexity of the situation so that everyone can make better informed decisions. We are passionate about sustainability; we’re passionate about the fishing industry; we’re passionate about food safety. But we also feel that the issue has been clouded by outdated and faulty data and somewhat of a reliance on simplistic victims from groups that turn the public against certain species of fish. We need to constantly question where fish comes from and how it is caught rather than rely on single sources of potentially biased information.
How is the new Legal Harborside restaurant performing?
So far so good. It’s been received very well. Boston does not have a huge number of restaurants on the water. This is an area, the Seaport District, which is undergoing radical transformation, and it’s sort of what’s being dubbed the new Boston right now. It’s an area of curiosity, certainly for many people around the Boston area. I think that we have an excellent site that oversees Boston Harbor and the fish pier — the oldest fish pier and auction house, I believe, in the country. So it’s an exciting site; the menus are exciting.
In the interior — we have three floors and 24,000 square feet overall — the first floor is very casual, very accessible. It’s what we call democratic dining, any one can afford to eat there. It’s similar to other waterfront locations and something that we have too few of in the U.S. The second floor is more celebratory, sort of a finer-dining take on what we traditionally do. And the third floor is a rooftop inclosable deck, which, when the sun is out and the weather’s beautiful, everything’s open. It’s a great place to relax and meet friends.
How has the retail seafood counter in the new location performed? And are there plans to open more retail seafood counters in any new or existing restaurants?
Boston does not have a lot of retail seafood counters. So in some way this is sort of counterintuitive. But there are going to be more and more condos and apartments going up and more and more people are migrating downtown, and so this is an amenity that is somewhat rare. Thus far, people are excited to see fresh fish available in the city where the fishing boats come in, but you can’t often buy fish as a consumer.
There are no plans to open retail counters in any existing location, but I will in showcase places like this where there’s a residential population and an urban population.