By Leon Alligood

In the battle for market share, restaurants whose fare depends on fish have had a tough go of it in recent years. American consumption of fish and seafood, according to the USDA, has held steady at about 15 pounds per person annually for well past a decade.

So how has Captain D’s Seafood Restaurants, the almost thirty-year-old Nashville-based chain owned and operated by Shoney’s, Inc., been able to hook gains in same-store sales during four of the past five years, with nearly one-fourth of their 375 stores surpassing the magic million dollar mark in 1998?

Ron Walker, the chain’s president and chief operating officer, doesn’t have to think twice about his answer. He attributes the forward strides to three primary factors: a fine-tuning of the price-to-value scale, improved training for employees, and, last, but certainly not least, catfish.

In fact, the freshwater fish performed so well perhaps the company should change its slogan to “the great little seafood and catfish place.”

“Having a variety has helped us. There’s no doubt about that,” says Walker. “We’ve tried catfish for years, but it never did as well as we expected and knew it could. Last year we added catfish as a promotion and it did very well for us.” But it was more than a case of a fish whose time had come, the Walker says. “Catfish is a very good product and a good value for the customer. We are experiencing our best customer traffic ever. We have locked in on a price to value relationship that’s working.”

Walker reasons if the customer is happy with the price, then he, as head of the company, will likely be happy with Captain D’s bottom line. That certainly was the case in 1998 when Captain D’s accounted for 27 percent of Shoney’s revenue, a 3 percent increase over the previous year. In addition, for the first time in company’s history average store sales systemwide exceeded $800,000.

For factors behind the surge in sales, Walker also points to what he calls Captain D’s “guest-obsessed” policy and the caliber of its employees. “The bottom line is without a good base of employees at every level of the concept, it would not be possible,” he says. “It’s our employees who make the difference. They are the ones working hard to win customers and keep them coming back to make all of this work.”

Keeping those employees trained and motivated is the reason the company began Captain D’s University, a nine-day program every supervisor is completing in 1999. Next year, every manager will participate in the exercise, which is held at the company’s restaurant support center in Nashville.

Among other areas the seafood chain is focusing on is the remodeling of stores, incorporating a seaberry exterior with a nautical motif interior. In addition, the restaurant has adopted a new program called SWAT, short for Store Waste Attack Tool, designed to lower food costs at the unit level.

If this year’s catch is as big as company officials hope, Captain D’s could have its first store to reach the $2 million sales benchmark in 1999. That all this success comes as the company prepares to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary in August is batter on the fish to Walker, a one-time assistant manager at a Tennessee Captain D’s who climbed up the corporate ladder to the top rung. He began with the company in 1980. “Since it’s our thirtieth anniversary, that says a lot in today’s restaurant business climate,” Walker says. “It’s a real compliment that we have been able to stay ahead.”

This article originally appeared in the September 1999 issue of QSR magazine. All rights reserved.

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