With 20 concepts ranging from the upscale Portland City Grill to the 1950s-themed Billy Heartbeats, Restaurants Unlimited Inc.'s (RUI) portfolio boasts 47 locations. With the debut of Portland Seafood Company on Nov. 17, the Seattle-based multi-concept operator adds a new concept that takes sustainable seafood into a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant setting. The 6,400-square-foot, 270-seat eatery billed as “Your local fish joint” features locally sourced and sustainably caught seafood — "Happy Fish" — prepared in familiar dishes such as Po' Boys, Fish & Chips and New England Clam Chowder.
RUI is tapping into another current trend with a unique wallet-friendly bar program. Director of Operations Nathan Fullmer spoke with VIBE about the drinks element of RUI's latest venture.
VIBE: What is the role of the drinks program in the Portland Seafood Company concept?
Nathan Fullmer: In our development of the concept, we wanted a neighborhood-friendly place with the sustainable food and an approachable liquor, beer and wine list. The goal was to make it affordable for a family, so a young family would be able to come in and the parents have a good seafood item along with a great drink and not break the bank. We wanted to hit that sweet spot of fitting value-oriented pieces along with specialty items with good value and a “wow” factor.
VIBE: What about the bar itself?
Fullmer: In this first location, the bar is directly visible as you enter the doors, just off toward the right side. It's a very open area, with a community table in the middle and booths around the side. It's a large bar — we can seat up to 15 at the bar itself — and there is a lot of action and energy, with the music level turned up and TVs are on with sports going. The bar is a nice, comfortable gathering place. The bar itself, and cocktail/beer/wine piece, was created to appeals to all walks, all genders and all ages.
VIBE: Wine is always important in a seafood-focused concept. Tell us about the wine list.
Fullmer: The list is decent size for local family restaurant, with 16 offerings and a focus on Pacific Northwest, and it's weighted a bit heavier on whites vs. reds. Everything is available both by the glass and by the bottle.
VIBE: With that value orientation, how is wine priced?
Fullmer: Wine by the glass ranges from $4 at the low end to $9 as our highest prices offering. And we're offering everything from Kendall-Jackson to Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest to some Northern California staples, so it's an appealing list on many levels.
VIBE: Wow — that is attractive pricing. How do you extend that pricing approach on the beer front?
Fullmer: Our beer selection includes five drafts, and the biggest thing is making sure it's what the Pacific Northwest guest looks for, so Coors Light, which is No. 1 in this area, is there, as is Blue Moon. Then we go on to locals: Widmere Hefeweizen, Ninkasi Total Domination IPA and Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, each of which are very popular in the area. The highest draft price is $4.50. Bottle offerings involve four bottles, including PBR at $2.50, and then also Bud Light ($3) and Heineken and Corona ($4).
VIBE: How competitive is that; how do those prices compare in the Portland market?
Fullmer: We are blowing people away on this, especially when you look at the micro-beers, which are $5.75 to $6 a glass in other places. You're not going to find $3 Coors Light draft elsewhere.
VIBE: What about the cocktail offering? How are you balancing value with quality there?
Fullmer: We're doing seven cocktails for $7 each. This is a true, local fish joint; we want you to come in and hang out and drink originals like Long Island Iced Tea, Bloody Mary, so we've got those. Then we also spiced it up with what we feel are company staples, like our Lavender Cosmo, which is a favorite in the Restaurants Unlimited concepts. A cocktail made with ABSOLUT Mandrin, Marie Brizard's Parfait Amour, fresh lime sour, cranberry juice and a lavender-sugared rim for $7, that's unheard of. The approach is to focus on staples and get back to the simple, fresh ingredients and garnishes and deliver the tastes people enjoy. We're not putting a bunch of syrups and whatnot in these drinks; everything is fresh and to accomplish that, we're keeping the list manageable.
VIBE: With such aggressive pricing on the menu, will you also be doing drink promotions?
Fullmer: We are marketing the restaurant as a whole as value-oriented with great pricing. We don't want sell just on specific things at specific times, we want to be known as a place to get great food and drinks at a great price at any time. In the development phase, we decided we didn't want to have a really expensive menu so we could have a dirt-cheap happy hour. Want to deliver everything they expect for a great price.
VIBE: So you are offering a happy hour?
Fullmer: Yes, and it takes our pricing to a complete other level. From 3 to 6 p.m. daily, we're doing $1 draft beer for all tap beers, cocktails are $3 for well brands, and we go to $2 house wines. The focus there is on the drinks — we are using our all-day menu and great pricing on that to accompany the happy hour drinks. So, two or three people can share apps, like our $7.99 calamari, and have a few drinks for a very reasonable check.
VIBE: The restaurant has only been open a few weeks, but how is business going? And where do you see beverage sales going?
Fullmer: We opened [a week and a half ago], and it's going very well. There's a great vibe in the restaurant and at the bar, and guest feedback is positive. We've made a good move as a company with this concept. As for beverage, we'd like to see beverage as a good percent of total sales. I'd love to see it in the 20% range, and I think that's realistic; we'd be ecstatic if we got into the 30% range.
VIBE: Will there be more Portland Seafood Company locations?
Fullmer: Time will tell!