How to Start a Seafood Restaurant

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The restaurant industry is growing; total sales at the time of writing have been growing for several years. If you're thinking of opening a seafood restaurant, industry growth is obviously good news. However, the industry is also highly competitive with more new restaurants opening every day. Planning and forethought can make you one of the successes.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

First, identify what sort of restaurant can compete best with your community's other eateries. Study the competition and identify what selling points your seafood business ideas have that your rivals don't. Set a budget for equipment and food and stick to it; it's dangerously easy to overspend.

Seafood Restaurant Ideas

"Seafood restaurant" is a name that covers a lot of variety. Seafood restaurant ideas come in many shapes and sizes, including:

  • Franchises such as Red Lobster and individually owned seafood restaurants.

  • Restaurants that use fresh, locally sourced fish and those that buy in bulk from wholesalers.

  • High-end sophisticated restaurants or cheaper eateries that cater to the mass market.

Sit down and define what sort of seafood restaurant you'd like to own. To focus your thoughts, ask what your elevator pitch is. If you had to tell someone what makes your restaurant great, what would you say to convince them to eat there? Some ideas include:

  • You offer fantastic, quality ingredients, such as locally sourced seafood.
  • Great prices.
  • Terrific service.
  • Incredible ambience. Customers get to dine in an elegant, stylish setting.
  • Extras such as a wine list and wine steward who can recommend the perfect wine for each seafood dish.

There's more to good seafood business ideas than just one selling point, but this can clear your mind about how you want to approach opening a seafood restaurant.

Assess the Competition

Your restaurant won't be serving up food in a vacuum. You'll be competing with other established restaurants in your area. How will you convince people used to eating there to try you instead? The first step is to study the local market closely.

Your direct competitors are other seafood restaurants in your area. Indirect competitors are restaurants that aren't seafood-centric but compete in other ways — a restaurant that serves grass-fed, locally sourced beef might compete for some of the same diners who'd be drawn to a coast-to-table seafood restaurant.

Analyze your competition and think about how you'd hold your own in your market:

  • Which restaurants are located where? Is there a part of town far enough away from existing seafood restaurants that offers a window of opportunity? Are there other restaurants there that would be indirect competition?

  • What are the competition's strengths and weaknesses, and how can you do better? If there's already a high-end seafood restaurant like the one you want to open, how could you outperform them? Better service? Better food? Lower prices?

  • What sort of concept do the indirect competitors follow? Are they kid-oriented, fine dining or a pub with fast food? Knowing this shows which ones are the strongest competitors for your target market.

  • What are the selling points of other seafood restaurants? If the biggest restaurant in town is famous for, say, oysters or shrimp, you might find an opening by concentrating on swordfish, snapper or other fish.

  • What else do rival seafood restaurants sell? Are they offering locally famous appetizers or unique desserts?

  • What price range do your competitors, direct and indirect, work in?

Sources of Supply

Your choice of supply will be shaped partly by where you live. If you're close enough to the coast, getting fresh seafood delivered regularly is an option, but not so much if you live in the middle of the continent. Even if buying fresh is feasible, you still have to weigh the costs and benefits of your seafood business ideas.

Buying locally gives you access to fresh ingredients, and if you deal with individual fishing boat captains or local fish farms, you can build relationships that lead to discounts. However, prices may also be higher, limiting the range of seafood you can offer. You may also have to deal with multiple suppliers to get the best variety and prices.

Working through wholesalers will offer you access to a larger selection and probably more discounts and bulk deals on top of lower prices. However, the offerings may be more generic, less specialized and typically not as fresh. The relationship will probably be pure business rather than personal.

Seafood Restaurant Equipment

Some businesses can be started with no equipment beyond a laptop or car. Opening a seafood restaurant takes more of an investment. No matter what your seafood restaurant ideas are, you'll need to invest in seafood restaurant equipment to carry those ideas out.

The exact seafood restaurant equipment you need will vary with your business model but may include:

  • A commercial steamer. Clams, mussels and some types of fish are cooked via steam, so this may be one of the most heavily used devices in your kitchen.

  • A stockpot range for cooking chowder or crawfish boils, boiling lobsters or making sauce, all in large quantities.

  • A charbroiler with a seafood grate. Charbroilers are standard equipment for restaurants, but the grate makes them work better with fish that may stick or splinter during broiling.

  • Refrigeration. A lot of restaurants have a refrigerator, but for a seafood restaurant, good refrigeration is imperative. Seafood spoils fast and spoiled seafood can make your customers ill.

  • Specialized cutlery for your customers such as oyster knives.

  • Special utensils such as fish scalers, sushi rollers, claw crackers and shrimp cleaners. Which ones you need will depend on your menu.

  • Security cages. Some seafood items are pricey enough to be worth stealing, so the restaurateur locks them up and controls access.

  • Aquariums. Lobster restaurants often have lobsters sitting in tanks, waiting for the patron to choose them. 

  • Sushi display case. These are chilled enough to keep the sushi fresh while letting customers eyeball your offerings.

  • Cold plates or cold wells. If you offer a buffet or raw bar, cold plates can keep your raw food cold instead of spoiled.

It can be tempting to splash out cash on your equipment, but be careful about overspending. You should buy everything you're going to need to open your doors but nothing that's not immediately necessary. Look for second-hand or online sources for your equipment or buy from local restaurants that are closing their doors.

Budget for Food

Like seafood restaurant equipment, food is another area where it's easy to overspend. As you're developing your seafood business ideas, do some research on industry standards. What does food cost other seafood restaurants in your town and how much is their markup? Then take a few more steps to control costs:

  • Get detailed contracts with your seafood suppliers. If you can lock in a good price for the next year or two, that protects you against cost hikes in the immediate future.

  • When you're testing out your menu items, weigh them. If you know exactly how much crab you're putting in your crab bisque, you'll have a clearer idea of how much to charge. It may be you need to raise prices or use simpler or cheaper ingredients.

  • Don't overbuy seafood, which wastes your money. At first, you'll have to estimate based on your sales projections, but within a few months of opening, you can refine your estimates based on hard data. Adjust your orders according to what you've learned about your needs. 

  • Pay attention to which dishes are in demand. If crab is popular and scallops aren't, you can save money by ordering more of one and less of the other. 

References

About the Author

Fraser Sherman has written about every aspect of business: how to start one, how to keep one in the black, the best business structure, the details of financial statements. He's also run a couple of small businesses of his own. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com