When Brown Bag Seafood founder and CEO Donna Lee switched to eating fish as her primary protein source about a decade ago, she found it was not easy to get her hands on high-quality product in a quick, counter-serve format. Having cut her teeth at Noodles & Company and Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago, Lee sensed an unrealized opportunity and decided to launch a fast casual focused on sustainable seafood.
Five locations later, her intuition has been validated: Chicago has wholeheartedly embraced Brown Bag Seafood. With plans to add three more stores this year and expand to a second market in 2020, Lee hopes more customers will welcome it, too. QSR spoke with Lee about her incentive to start the brand and the challenges she’s faced along the way.
Fishing hole / When I started, it was motivating that there were not any other players in this space doing what we do. It seemed like there was a lot of growth opportunity in it, which luckily has panned out. We’re starting to see more brands who are really putting forth effort in sustainability and environmental consciousness, and consumers are valuing those things enough that they’re starting to choose companies that are aligned with their values.
There is a lot of versatility within the menu. You can do something as indulgent as panko-crusted crispy cod tacos or a grilled salmon on greens and grains. We find that our most loyal customers are the ones choosing healthy options. When people think about what they can eat for lunch or dinner that is quick, healthy, and high quality, we really fit the bill.
As the customer, you walk in and one of the first things you recognize is that the colors are bright and the space is very fresh looking. One of the things I have tried to steer away from—which I think the industry has steered toward—is having sterile environments. Ours are the complete opposite. There’s a lot of warmth and detail in them. It has a more Etsy-crafted vibe.
Challenging catch / One of the most difficult things is that the status of certain species of fish changes relatively frequently. We have had to build versatility into the menu so we can make those very nimble changes that are required. If a certain species falls out of good standing by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program, then we have to take that into account. We have a menu item called the Daily Catch that we change very frequently. It’s not surprising if you walk into a Brown Bag and the Daily Catch has changed within the day, sometimes multiple times.
The other piece is that quality is expensive. You have to make a choice as a business owner how much you can tolerate absorbing the changes in certain margins. Because the price of fish is so volatile, we have a system internally now that we can say, “OK, if Lake Superior whitefish is up right now and salmon is down, we feel that we can bet on the success of all those things balancing out by whatever time period.” We’re able to absorb the fluctuations within the seafood category.
Point of pride / Last year was one of the most interesting business years for us. We went from being a true independent business culture to needing to put a lot of processes in place so that we can scale at the pace we want to scale. It’s a learning curve to navigate and create processes that ultimately don’t alienate your existing workforce. They’re comfortable and happy working for a very independent-feeling company.
At the same time, you’re looking for a lot of consistency. When companies get to a certain size, people have a tendency to make things almost foolproof. We’ve made a conscious choice to invest in making simpler recipes, training our team, and making sure we maintain people’s pride in their jobs. That means whole sides of salmon come in the door and staff are responsible for filleting and portioning it—really being in touch with that ingredient. The guy who was once flipping frozen patties is now excited to talk to a customer about how they can de-skin a salmon and what we marinate it in, because it’s all really happening in house.
We find that that education process is really important to the staff and the customer. Making clam chowder from scratch in the restaurant might lead to less consistency for the company, but it’s a piece that people can take pride in. I love my team. I think the fast-casual industry is so dynamic. You really have the opportunity to mentor, develop, and learn from people who are in all walks of life and in different stages of their lives.