Q&A: Oceanaire looks to life after bankruptcy

Published on
January 10, 2010

 Times were incredibly difficult for high-end restaurants in 2009, and no one knows that better than executives with The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Minneapolis. It was only six months ago that the 12-unit upscale seafood chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closed four of its restaurants: Seattle, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C. Now, as the chain is about to emerge from bankruptcy, Wade Wiestling, VP of culinary development for Oceanaire, talks to SeafoodSource about the U.S. economy and Oceanaire's outlook for 2010.

Blank: There's talk that the U.S. economy may start to improve in 2010. What do executives at Oceanaire expect this year?
Wiestling: We are optimistic and hopeful, yet we are not expecting a miraculous recovery anytime soon. I expect it to be the third quarter, before we see any signs of a recovery. You can't think, after a recovery, that people are getting right back to work … and spending money. It takes some time for the ripples to smooth themselves out.

Blank: When is Oceanaire emerging from bankruptcy protection?
We are looking forward to emerging later this month as a healthy company. We have filed a plan of reorganization for approval. It has taken a little longer than we had anticipated, but we are pretty thorough as a company. We took care of our employees throughout the whole process and they have stayed with us. We have maintained relationships with our buyers and vendors, who have showed continued support.

How did you improve efficiencies and grow your business in 2009?
We didn't look to discounts and coupons. We looked at providing a better value through our pricing and services. For example, we expanded our bar menu to include not only drink and cocktail specials but also food items, and nothing on there is over USD 15. We are still doing the Market Menu, which is a seasonal, three-course menu for USD 29.95 per person. We still have the USD 20.10 Wine [special], in which a bottle of red or white wine is featured at USD 20.10 every day.

How has Oceanaire's seafood purchasing changed over the last year, and what will change in 2010?
The economy has driven down some of the prices, but we are focused on delivering the best quality. We can't lose sight of what is important: meeting the expectations of today's consumers. Nothing will change with seafood purchasing until the economy picks up. I don't think there is anything that is going to be new … for Oceanaire. We are focusing on the core basics.

What will change in regards to Oceanaire's menu selections and marketing?
We are looking at new ways of presenting items, without deteriorating our brand. The Oceanaire brand is still a very strong brand. Print marketing is becoming more and more a thing of the past, and we have been putting our focus on electronic marketing, including e-mail marketing and social media. We are building awareness and keeping our name out there through social media. We lifted the curtain on our new Web site in October, and it gives us the ability to integrate social media into our Web site and our menus are up-to-the-minute.

What challenges do you foresee for Oceanaire and upscale seafood in general in 2010?
There has been a lot of doom and gloom in the media, and we have been burdened by one report after another, telling us that people are eating out less. High-end eateries will continue to have to find ways to bring in guests. Consumers have been retrained these last few months and are going to continue to seek out value, whether they are sitting in a sports bar or in Oceanaire. Restaurateurs are going to be forced to reach more people with more products, and reach a broader demographic.

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