Legal Sea Foods landed in harbor Fresh caught: A Boston seafood dynasty grows from its humble, sawdust origins into a chain of restaurants, with Baltimore getting No. 17.

September 22, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Once a place where patrons ate off paper plates at picnic tables, and traipsed through sawdust on the floors, Legal Sea Foods has expanded out of Boston to become a chain of 17 restaurants.

The newest location is at 100 E. Pratt St. in Baltimore's Inner

Harbor, in space until recently occupied by Sfuzzi, an Italian bistro.

The site -- the chain's first in Maryland -- is one that Roger Berkowitz, the 46-year-old president and chief executive of Legal Sea Foods Inc., has been watching for more than two years because of its potential for good lunch, weekend and convention business.

"I liked the location," said Berkowitz, a Waltham, Mass., native who speaks with a distinctive Boston accent. "I didn't want a spot that was too touristy. I wanted a spot that could attract the local traffic flow. If I were across the street, I might have had to rely more on the tourist business."

The first Legal Sea Foods restaurant opened in 1968 next to the fish market Berkowitz's father, George, had opened in Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass., 18 years earlier. The name went back to a grocery opened in 1904 by George Berkowitz's father, Harry, called the Legal Cash Market, where customers were given "legal cash" trading stamps with their purchases.

The Baltimore restaurant has a dining room more contemporary than the usual Legal Sea style of wood paneling, busy with fish artifacts and art on the walls. Here, diners walk down a curved, concrete ramp embedded with bronze and brass fish to simulate being on a dock and peering down into a pond. Two 20-feet-long mahogany fish arch overhead, reflected in ceiling mirrors to give the illusion that the fish are floating.

Berkowitz admits that he might have preferred to hold onto the rustic charm of the first restaurants, once described as "early orange crate." But as the popularity of fish grew, along with the price, more amenities had to be offered to diners, starting about 1980.

Legal Sea Foods is a privately held company and is not required to disclose its financials. But Berkowitz said sales were more than $80 million in 1997. Those are up from $69 million in 1996, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago food service consulting firm. Berkowitz expects sales at the Baltimore restaurant of between $4 million to $6 million a year.

Among Legal Sea's nearby competitors are: Phillips Harborplace Restaurant, McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant and the Rusty Scupper. Phillips has exceeded $13 million in revenue each of the past 10 years -- with revenue sometimes closer to $16 million, according to a Phillips spokeswoman. McCormick & Schmick's, which opened last winter, predicted sales of about $5 million in their first year. Sales figures could not be obtained for the Rusty Scupper, which opened in 1982.

"We like to be in situations where people have an opportunity to compare us to someone else," Berkowitz said. He also thinks that Legal's offerings are different from most nearby.

"We are in the seafood business," he said. "That's a key point of differentiation. We really evolved from a retail market mentality. We were down at the docks every day. We evolved almost by accident into the restaurant business."

Legal Sea prides itself for using the freshest fish and helped set industry standards for food safety. Fish goes through their quality-control center in Allston, Mass., before delivery to their various restaurants. Their slogan: "If it isn't fresh, it isn't Legal."

"Legals went from two or three stores in the 1970s to the 17 they are now and have kept strong brand image and built the brand," said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president at Technomic Inc. "They've staked out their position, and they're holding it."

They continue to expand despite a drop in per capita fish and shellfish consumption in the United States from 16.1 pounds in 1987 to 14.9 pounds in 1996, Lombardi said.

Legal Sea is expected to grow by four or five restaurants each of the next couple years, Berkowitz said. "Essentially we're going to be regarded as an East Coast company, but we may take a strong look at Chicago," he said. "It's a great restaurant town, but it is somewhat under-served by seafood."

Unknown locally

The chain has several locations in the Washington area including downtown, Tysons Corner and Reagan National Airport. A restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is scheduled to open in February or March.

Berkowitz is making no assumptions about the level of name recognition in Baltimore.

"The business travelers who go from city to city on the East Coast will know us," he said. "The locals, we have to assume that they don't."

For those who have missed the announcement banners trailing from airplanes recently, Legal Sea is open for lunch and dinner, featuring about 40 varieties of fish daily. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant, which cost about $800,000 to renovate, seats 160 with room for another 40 outside.

Those banners trailing from airplanes have worked well for Legal Sea -- almost too well.

Before using them for the first time to kick off the West Nyack, N.Y., opening in May, a test flyover was done in Boston. The switchboard at the corporate office lit up quickly. A Lowell, Mass. caller demanded directions and had to be told that the new restaurant was a 3 1/2 -hour drive away. This time, Berkowitz decided against testing the Baltimore banners over the skies of Boston.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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