On the spot: Seafood eatery thinks modern
Former Central Florida restaurant owners Craig Tremblay and Chef George Vogelbacher smartly partnered with a sustainable food distributor restaurant in Winter Park, Fla. Gary Reed, owner of distributor Gary’s Seafood Specialties in Orlando, approached the two to help design the kitchen and operate Winter Park Fish Co. a year ago. Tremblay had owned Bonefish Billy’s in Winter Park and Vogelbacher, 70, owned fine dining European eatery Le Cordon Bleu, also in Winter Park.
As a partner and executive chef of Winter Park Fish Co., which features upscale seafood preparations with casual restaurant atmosphere and pricing, Vogelbacher oversees creation of the daily menu. On the Spot recently talked with Vogelbacher about how the seafood eatery fits into the modern casual-dining style and the type of seafood he is looking for.
Blank: Why did you and your partners decide to go with a modern dining concept?
Vogelbacher: When you don’t have full-service, white tablecloth restaurants such as Mitchell’s Fish Market or Ruth’s Chris, the most expensive items on the menu are USD 22 for lobster or bouillabaisse. With the kind of atmosphere and service we have, that is the highest we can go. The portions are also not quite as big as some other restaurants. We try for 6 ounces on all fish portions, which is very sensible with today’s diet. We have unusual pastas, Israeli-style couscous and coconut rice, which is different than some of the current restaurants. We also offer fresh vegetables daily.
You have a lot of interesting items on the menu. Which are your top sellers?
Our No. 1 seller is probably fish and chips; we use a cod from Alaska. Our No. 2 seller is stuffed grouper with crab meat and gruyere cheese; it is one of our specialties. Our grouper and mahi sandwiches are also very popular, and we do grouper cheeks. Grouper cheeks are usually only prepared in Asian restaurants, but I used to do those at Le Cordon Bleu. Because it is so cold, I am making a bouillabaisse from scratch.
From where do you buy your seafood? Which items are you having difficulty finding?
The main owner of the restaurant is Gary’s Seafood, so we are first in line for all fresh fish and the new items that come in. We always have six to eight fresh fish daily, including wahoo, cobia, grouper, mahi, yellowfin tuna, Key West snapper and trout from Idaho. We use wild seafood as much as possible, including wild-caught shrimp that we use for soups and other dishes. Whenever I can get Key West shrimp or the pinks from Cape Canaveral, I do. However, it is too cold right now. Because of the grouper and snapper bans in the state of Florida, we really have to search around in Central American and Mexico for those fish.
How important is it to you to use local seafood?
Whenever it is available and affordable, we stick with Florida seafood. We use Florida stone crabs, for example. We will use Florida grouper and snapper again, when the season opens again 1 May. Gary Reed, the principal partner, grew up in the Keys, and we both know what it means to catch fish and eat it on the spot. We are also trying to give Florida fishermen jobs.
You have a fresh fish case at the restaurant. How are sales from the case?
We are selling a lot of fish right out of the showcase for people to take home. It is probably 10 percent of our business, and we now sell fresh seafood at the Winter Park Farmers Market every Saturday morning. Everything I have on the menu is also available to the customer. It is not always in the case, but I store it in the walk-in cooler. If a customer wants four fillets of tuna or wahoo, we cut them to order.
Are you expanding Winter Park Fish Co. to other cities?
On December 10, we finished our first business year, so now we have a clear picture of the profits that this size of unit can establish. Now we have something to offer someone who wants to buy in or be an operating partner. We have interest from Lake Mary, Fla., Mount Dora, Fla., and Ormond Beach, Fla. We have had offers from a couple of corporate companies; we would like to keep it “in the family” with Gary’s Seafood and the few people who started the concept.