Think kids and seafood don't mix? Yankee Pier proves otherwise.
Yankee Pier, a burgeoning concept from Lark Creek Restaurant Group, is about as different from a McDonald's as you can get; still, both brands are aiming for the same target audience: families. It's just that Yankee Pier has taken a decidedly different tack in approaching the market.
Yankee Pier sprouted serendipitously from a handy available location and the imagination of a chef who hailed from New England. Lark Creek Restaurant Group had been operating the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, CA, for about a decade when a restaurant space across the parking lot became available. Management decided that a New England-style clam shack might be the right fit for the quaint, century-old structure.
A team set off for New England to research the real thing, which helped determine the right look. But in keeping with the company's high standards, the menu went way beyond lobster rolls, fried clams and chips. Instead, Yankee Pier focused on fresh, sustainably caught seafood, brought in daily from the Pacific and Atlantic: Maine lobster, whole belly Ipswich clams, Fox Island mussels, Monterey squid, Dungeness crab, Pacific cod and more. The restaurant would serve food in season and mix in burgers, chicken and steak from artisanal producers. The menu emphasizes scratch preparations, and virtually all the seafood is processed at the restaurant. While fried food dominated the menu early on, the mix has evolved according to patrons' tastes to highlight other preparation techniques.
With an average check of $19 at lunch and $29 at dinner, Yankee Pier isn't vying for the typical McDonald's customer. Its target demographic includes better-educated, higher-income families who are food savvy and appreciate the concept's value proposition.
“We think we can bridge the gap between high quality and families with kids,” says Michael Dellar, Lark Creek's c.e.o. and president.
When it opened in 2000, Yankee Pier scored big with the critics, earning a mention as of of the 10 best new area restaurants in the San Francisco Chronicle. Yankee Pier quickly built up a devoted following, and developers started calling. The company behind Santana Row, a new mixed-use upscale development in San Jose, offered Lark Creek an exclusive on seafood among the 25 restaurants planned for the project. Next came a licensing agreement with business acquaintances for a spot at San Francisco International Airport. Then a location in Lafayette, which brought more kudos and enthusiastic response from the locals.
Yankee Pier continues to evolve as it expands to new locations. The original décor, which Dellar describes as “funky, down and dirty,” didn't seem to jibe with the quality of what was on the plate. “We wanted people to feel that they're in a restaurant where a $25 plate of food isn't out of place,” he says. The later restaurants sport a more refined yet still comfortable design, with buoys, lobster traps and nets replaced by original art, nautical maps, picket fences and handcrafted items.
At the beginning, about half the menu items were fried; today that's closer to 25 percent. Entrees are offered in three styles: baked, grilled or pan sautéed. And there are more chef's creations, which are location-specific and change daily. “We have chefs, not kitchen managers,” Dellars says. “This allows them to put more of their statement on the menu.”
Dellar thinks Yankee Pier is a good fit for the times, considering the heightened interest in food, especially what kids are eating. “With all the TV and books that focus on food, the general population is becoming much more savvy,” he observes. And interest in green businesses continues to be strong. As a result, he says. “more and more communities that might not have been a good candidate have become part of our potential population base.”
Not surprisingly, kids are made to feel special in a variety of ways. They are the first to be served, with complimentary carrot and celery sticks and dip; some of the more family-focused locations have sandboxes, picnic tables and benches on the patio; a wagonful of toys beckons; coloring contests are routine. The menu includes about a dozen choices for the small fry.
Overcoming Early Hurdles
It hasn't been easy clearing the high bar Lark Creek set for Yankee Pier, where the prevailing mantra is “seasonal and sustainable.” One of the concept's hallmarks is its sourcing of sustainably caught seafood. “We are religiously dedicated to the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program,” Dellar says. “Some people are building green restaurants, but we are offering green food, if you will. Unfortunately, that's the exception rather than the common practice.” That commitment to sustainability means it's more difficult to source popular items, such as shrimp, and often that product ends up costing a premium.
Sticking to a seasonal, scratch menu has challenged the cost structure on a number of levels as well. Families may be committed to feeding their children fresh, ethically responsible meals, but they are concerned about value as well, and a menu mix that relies heavily on seafood is bound to come with high food costs attached to it; in addition, labor-intensive preparation increases operating costs. The answer for food costs has been to offer a balance of higher and lower-cost items. Chowder, for example, is cheap to produce compared to a lobster roll.
To create a better value message, Yankee Pier recently rolled out a menu category called “sea bites,” which are small portions under $5. And offering two portion sizes has yielded positive results.
Yankee Pier doesn't spend a lot on advertising, preferring to rely on promotional activities. So each year the restaurants do a crab festival, May is teacher appreciation month, August offers a tomato celebration and September focuses on food and wine from Australia. Happy hours bring in crowds for dollar oysters and small beers; the special on Monday night is all you can eat fish and chips.
Labor costs are little tougher. Crabs are delivered live and must be cooked, iced and hand picked; calamari is fresh and must be cleaned and gutted; and so on. Dellar says Yankee Pier has “been working aggressively on managing those costs, but we do have a little work to do.”
Onward and Outward
So far, Lark Creek hasn't had to look very hard for chances to expand the Yankee Pier concept. “Most of the opportunities have come to us from landlords who have seen what we do and ask us to open,” Dellar says. ”We would much rather be the one who is courted than the courter,” he adds. Lark Creek would rather finance a deal with as little of its own capital as necessary — typically, he says, less than 20 percent of the costs. Tenant improvement allowances factor heavily into a decision to open, and Dellar says the company is willing to share some of the spoils with landlords who invest. And more licensing deals like the one at SFO are a possibility as well.
Right now the company is looking beyond the Bay Area for potential expansion sites. The goal is to keep anything within a 90-minute plane trip from San Francisco, which on the heavily populated Pacific coast is not much of a challenge. “We can be a little patient to secure what we call great deals,” Dellar adds. The ideal markets contain a critical mass of food-savvy customers and are close enough that the small management team can keep tabs on operations. Los Angeles and Napa Valley are the two areas with the most immediate appeal.
There is no standard square footage for a Yankee Pier; Dellar says he will consider a 4,000-square-foot space with outdoor seating; he will also consider shoehorning into “remnant” spaces if they make sense.
At the moment, Dellar believes Yankee Pier has no direct competition. He acknowledges that new crab shack-style rivals have opened on the West Coast in recent years, but adds that “we've evolved more into the grilled, baked and sautéed fish with choices of sides and sauces.” Chains like McCormick and Schmick might be considered competition, but their menus are much broader. Yankee Pier's goal is to have “the best fish for the moment, not every fish,” Dellar explains.
In this economic environment, it's difficult to predict how big Yankee Pier can grow, but Dellar says he'll feel like the concept has hit its stride when it's embraced in markets outside the Bay Aea. “If we go to L.A., Phoenix, Seattle, Portland and San Diego, and it works there, then I think we will have something that will be a viable, expandable concept,” he observes.
CONCEPT: New England-influenced seafood house, focus on fresh preparation and commitment to sustainability
OWNERS: Lark Creek Restaurant Group
KEY EXECUTIVES: Michael Dellar, c.e.o./president; Quinn McKenna, senior v.p., operations; Jon Gologorsky, senior v.p./c.f.o.; Adrian Hoffman, v.p./culinary director; John Hulihan, v.p., beverage and service
LOCATIONS: 4, all near San Francisco
AVERAGE CHECK: $19 at lunch, $29 at dinner
AVERAGE ANNUAL SALES PER SQUARE FOOT: $1,000+
GROWTH PLANS: to add 1 in 2009, 2-3 in 2010, 4-5 in 2011
On the Menu
New England Clam Chowder with Bacon & Dill Drop Biscuts
$5.95 for a mug, $7.50 for a bowl
Hand-picked Maine Lobster Roll with Griddled Bun, Cole Slaw & Kettle Chips
Beer-Battered Fish ‘n Chips
For the Small Set
Small Chowda' ($3.95)
Bay Shrimp Cocktail ($5.95)
Mac ‘n Cheese ($5.95)
Grilled Wild Salmon ($8.95)