Sharky’s takes a big seafood QSR bite


Lauren Kramer, Contributing Editor

Published on
November 12, 2014

Seafood is a perfect fit for growing QSR chain Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, which has a clear focus on healthful meals prepared quickly. With 21 locations in California, the company’s CEO talks about expansion plans and getting smart on seafood procurement.

When Steve Paperno opened the first Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill in 1992 in Sherman Oaks, Calif., he and his business partner David Goldstein’s goal was to create a lifestyle brand that catered to customers who cared about what they ate. Clean food was the mantra for the premium fast-casual restaurant chain, which offers organic locally grown greens, organic tofu, organic grains and beans and high-quality proteins including hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and wild-caught fish.

Today the restaurant group is a USD 35 million (EUR 27.1 million) company with 700 employees and 21 restaurants in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

“We have three more restaurants opening in the next few months, one of them in Portland, Ore, and our short-term goal is 75 restaurants in the next seven years,” said Goldstein, 53, chief operating officer.

The 2,500-square-foot quick-service restaurants seat up to 100 guests and are “bringing the QSR category up a level,” said Joseph Sabbagh, owner of consultants Sax Maritime Associates in Calabasas, Calif. “Through their menu, their system and their passion they’ve achieved a higher-end QSR. I don’t know anyone else serving the quality of food they are, at those prices, in the Mexican category.”

Seafood fits the philosophy
While Sharky’s is Mexican-inspired and Mexican in name, its menu is all about healthy choices. The wild salmon burrito comes with organic brown rice, avocado, cucumber, chili sesame aioli and wild salmon, “almost a sushi roll wrapped in a tortilla,” Goldstein explained. Customers ordering a “power plate” get to customize their dish, choosing their grilled protein and selecting from eight side dishes, including organic green side salad, yams and broccoli.

“It’s become a fairly significant portion of our menu and is great for those looking for a protein-packed meal with a low-carb load,” he said. “The more guests learn about our customizing options, the more they dine around the menu and try different items,” he reflects. “That’s why our growth in seafood is so strong: People trust seafood when they know who is preparing it and how it’s prepared.”

Seafood constituted just 5 percent of the menu a few years ago, with shrimp, salmon and mahimahi as the mainstays. When mahi supplies got tight Goldstein and Paperno started exploring the marketplace for a variety of wild fish. As they added more fish, the quantity of seafood they sold doubled, and to date it constitutes 12 percent of the menu and 15.3 percent of total food costs. Paperno hopes to increase that number to 20 percent in the near future.

“Seafood is a great, healthy protein, which supports our philosophy of healthier eating choices and when cooked properly creates many wonderful menu options and provides amazing nutritional qualities,” he said.

Upselling with shrimp
The company has tight specifications for its seafood, opting for skin-off, 4-ounce, once-frozen filets, domestic supply preferred. Its key suppliers are Neptune Foods in Vernon, Calif., and Cannon Fish Co. in Seattle. To improve the company’s seafood selection and purchasing programs, Goldstein hired the services of seafood consultant Sabbagh.

“He allows me to learn about the marketplace and understand how to build a calendar that’s sustainable, seasonal and meets all our criteria,” he says. “He explains where the fish are, what the season looks like, which supplier works best with that particular seafood and how many pounds I need to buy to secure my relationship with them, so he’s an excellent conduit and really helps me manage my time.”

Goldstein recently moved to a 21/25-count P&D, tail-off shrimp instead of the 41/50 shrimp he’d previously menued. “We wanted a better product, which is why we made the change, and we knew there’d be a positive reaction — but we were surprised by how positive it actually was,” he said. “We’re now selling almost 50 percent more shrimp than we were selling before!” Seafood prices on Sharky’s menu range from USD 4.39 (EUR 3.40) for a fish taco to USD 9.99 (EUR 7.75) for shrimp burritos and USD 16.99 (EUR 13.18) for a power plate with shrimp.

Goldstein is currently in discussions about the possibility of menuing Oregon albacore and merluza (hake) from the Gulf of Mexico, which he says is “flavorful but flakey.”

“We’ve looked at six other varieties of fish, none of which fit who we are because we need a firm fish for grilling,” he said. “Baking doesn’t fit in with what we’re trying to accomplish.” Ultimately he hopes to menu up to five species of seafood at any one time, two of them mainstays and the remaining offered on a rotating schedule.

Paperno is not surprised by Sharky’s success. “I think when you’re passionate about something as much as I am, 24 hours a day, it always works,” he said. “We attract people who crave great-tasting, clean food with a variety of choices that other restaurants don’t offer.”

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