SENA15: Roger Berkowitz, CEO of Legal Sea Foods, talks sustainability, growth

Legal Sea Foods is not just a chain of upscale casual dining restaurants dotting the East Coast, 34 strong, with 11 in Boston alone. It’s a well-rounded seafood company that’s been a fixture in Boston since its inception in Inman Square in 1950, but also one that’s evolved from fish market to seafood restaurant to multifaceted seafood supplier with mail order operations and a line of value-added retail products.

Much of that evolution has been under the watchful eye of CEO Roger Berkowitz, son of the company’s founder George Berkowitz. Since 1992 when Roger took the helm, the company has expanded into new markets and diversified its portfolio of restaurants, all of which bear the Legal name in one way or another. The Legal Harborside restaurant on Northern Avenue is the crown jewel, with room for 600 guests to enjoy unbeatable views.

Boston is one of America’s iconic seafood towns, and Berkowitz is one of the city’s biggest fishes. He joined us for a chat in February to talk about sustainable seafood sourcing, innovative ways to sell seafood and how the company strategizes growth opportunities in various markets.

Wright: A few years ago you did a “blacklist” dinner of the fish species that were not considered PC to serve at a restaurant. If you did that dinner again today, what would you be serving? Would it look much different?

Berkowitz: Good question. I took that opportunity to talk about the so-called black list dinner because I think that chefs were pretty much misinformed about what was sustainable and what wasn’t. I looked at that dinner as a way to reach out and educate some folks who use seafood because I thought there was a lot of environmental propaganda out there. I thought there needed to be a balanced understanding of what the seafood industry was about and what was really sustainable and what perhaps wasn’t. I hadn’t any idea that that kind of thing would go viral. Nonetheless, it served its purpose of at least starting a dialogue. So, in doing it again, I’d probably do similar species [black tiger shrimp fritters, cod cheeks, prosciutto-wrapped hake]. Again, I think that people sort of don’t have a clear understanding of sustainability.

How do you currently define sustainability?

As someone in the fish business, I make a living selling fish, but I have a responsibility of sourcing it appropriately and not sourcing it from areas that may not support the species. As an example, Chilean sea bass, or Patagonian toothfish, is caught all over. Some areas of the world have a very defined program on only taking X amount of product. However, some 85 percent is theoretically harvested illegally. And since it takes such a long time for the fish to grow out, to even put it on your menu, I don’t think personally that’s responsible. Even if I was buying Chilean sea bass from a sustainable source, I think I would be doing it a disservice because the message the consumer would see is that it’s sanctioned, it’s OK to eat, when in fact the world’s supply is really overfished. So I avoid it altogether. I try to take a moral look at it, or an ethical approach of what is the right thing to do.

When it comes to cod, as another example, there are many organizations that might say it’s endangered. NOAA has a quota system in place. I may not agree with it, I might think it’s too Draconian. Regardless, whatever is deemed harvestable is deemed sustainable. There just may not be an awful lot of it. I have to support the fishermen as well. If their catch has been cut back by 70 percent, I still have to buy their product.

Regarding sustainability messaging in a restaurant setting, what information belongs on a menu and what doesn’t? Is the origin all you need to put on there?

Sometimes it’s too much; sometimes others will say they’re buying from Captain Al or whatever. I think that guests are not necessarily looking for too much information. They want assurances that you’re a responsible player in the business; they want assurances that what you’re serving is what you say you’re serving; they want assurances that you care about sustainability and they may want to know how you deal with it. Does all of that have to be on a menu? Not necessarily. I think you can make information available to people on a website or you empower your staff to have this information and disseminate it.

U.S. seafood consumption is flat, at best. What’s one way to increase the amount of fish that people eat?

It’s a good question. If people are continually made aware of the health benefits, that’s certainly an inducement to eat it more often. One of the obstacles in more seafood consumption is that seafood is no longer inexpensive; it’s not a commodity. There’s not an overabundance of supply, so that pushes the price point of it up. The message may be, you know what, it may not be to encourage people to eat it more, but just to eat it when it’s available, as a specialty item. There’s not an overabundance. People know the health benefits and the flavor profiles. It’s shifted from a commodity to something that is really appreciated. 

You went on Shop HQ’s EVINE Live in January to sell fish to at-home shoppers. What was that experience like? Is there a future for seafood sales via TV?

I liked it because I could tell the story about what differentiated what it is that we do and the products that we carry. It’s not a commodity. The seafood we [promoted] comes with a sauce or in crab cake form or in chowder form. It was a great opportunity for us to tell our story. The medium can be effective with that.

Legal’s TV presence is typically reserved for humorous ad spots. Can you share a piece of your overall advertising philosophy?

People want information; they want to be informed. Regardless of what you sell or represent, people want some kind of story. In the case of our seafood, we have restaurants, proprietary recipes. We get people to think differently about it. Electronic media, TV or radio is a great way to convey the attributes of what you have.

Is seafood is becoming more competitive, pricewise, with other proteins?

If it is [more competitive], it’s only temporary. It’s all predicated on supply and demand, what other countries are putting pressure on the resource. I don’t think as a long-term play you can think of it as a cheaper protein. While it may be the case today, it may not be the case tomorrow.

Has the flagship restaurant, Legal Harborside, lived up to your expectations?

Seafood on the water works. It has certainly lived up to our expectations. I’m there quite frequently, three to four times a week.

Have you been in when it’s filled to capacity?

Oh yes, that’s when I really enjoy it! 

Legal is cautious about opening new restaurants. Can you share a little bit about your growth strategy and exploring new markets? Any new openings in the works?

I do have new openings in the works; I don’t necessarily like to share the growth strategy but thank you for asking! We grow and we have different venues and models. We look at an area we want to be in and we think of what is the most appropriate model. It will have the name Legal in it. Some are larger or smaller, some have expansive menus, some tailored — it depends on where we’re going. One size doesn’t always fit all. There’s an urban and a suburban model. And they can be quite different, frankly.

How many seafood shows have you attended in Boston? What business do you attend to when you’re there?

It’s interesting. I’ve gone to many, many seafood shows, not a lot that I’ve missed. I like to see what’s happening in different countries; I like to see what’s happening with farmed product; I like to see if there are new, emerging fisheries. There’s always something new you can learn by going to the show.

At the end of the day, Legal is in the fish business. We play very close attention to how we source product, how we handle product. We’re most visible with our restaurants but we have mail order, value added, Shop HQ and we have been in retail. We’re really in the sourcing of product and doing something with it that the consumer sees as value.


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