Searching for a signal about how consumers will spend their discretionary dollars? Look no further than outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops (BPS), many of whose over-the-top megastores contain large casual dining seafood operations that operate under the Islamorada Fish Company brand. The new BPS store in Altoona, IA, near Des Moines, has a restaurant, too, but it’s a scaled-back concept called Uncle Buck’s. When a savvy retail giant like Bass Pro Shops (60 stores, $1.9 billion in sales, more than 100 million store visits annually) makes a move indicating that consumers are cutting back, it’s time to pay attention.
If you or someone in your family isn’t into hunting and fishing, you’ve probably never been in a Bass Pro Shop. But those who have will testify it’s a memorable experience. Each unit is a world unto itself, with oversized displays of boats, firearms, equipment and apparel suitable for any outdoor activity. There are plenty of non-shopping diversions, (archery ranges, fish tanks, bowling lanes, billiard tables), with Islamorada Fish Company being the in-house restaurant.
Not every Bass Pro Shop has an Islamorada Fish Company. But the 23 that do are able to offer patrons the chain’s boldly flavored seafood dishes, plus steaks, hickory-fired rotisserie chicken and what it describes as “exotic” appetizers. The concept reflects an approach that works in the original Islamorada down in the Florida Keys, where fresh seafood hits the town’s docks every day. It’s been successful enough that BPS has become a chain restaurant operator of significant size, even though foodservice is almost an afterthought in the overall BPS scheme.
The menu features 11 appetizers in the $8 range, most of them seafood-related with the exception of the outdoorsman-friendly venison-stuffed mushrooms. Patrons can also start their meals with one of four salads or two soups before proceeding to one of seven seafood dishes (priced mostly in the upper teens) or a simple flame-grilled treatment of one of seven seafood species, also priced in the mid to upper teens. Non-seafood lovers can opt for something as inexpensive as a hickory fired rotisserie chicken for $9.95 or a $20 New York strip. There’s also a six-item fried seafood menu section (prices mid to lower teens) and the eight-item sandwich list has prices that hover around $10.
In short, the Islamoradas have a big menu reminiscent of mainstream casual dining, only with more seafood. The restaurants are physically big as well, with the Cucamonga, CA, unit coming in at 11,900 square feet. Non-outdoorsman foodies and critics who visit an Islamorada Fish Company typically admit, often begrudgingly, that it’s a first-class restaurant experience.
The Bass Pro Shops people would have to break the mold if they wanted to do something different for the 145,000 sq. ft. Altoona store, and they did. How come? They knew it was time. Because of the ongoing feedback from its retailing activities, plus the online behavior of the 2.5 million unique visitors who enter the BPS website each month, the privately held chain has a read on consumer trends and behavior unlike that of any other restaurant operator its size. When it came to opening a new store in 2009, the decision was made to make the restaurant part of the business significantly more affordable.
But the rest of the Altoona unit still qualifies as destination shopping. The merchandise component is the company’s standard 65,000-item assortment. As for other aspects of the store, the Bass Pro Shop people like to describe them as “part museum, art gallery, antique store, aquarium, education, conservation and entertainment center. Using more than 3,500 area artifacts, antiques, pictures, mounts and memorabilia, the store becomes a living museum of Iowa’s hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor legacies.”
Among the features: “a diorama that begins on the right side of the clerestory and wraps around the aquarium depicts herds of buffalo and prong horn antelope being chased across the prairies by wolves.” Elsewhere in the store, visitors can walk “under a duck marsh and look up to see a fish-eye’s view of ducks diving and swimming on the surface.”
Want to try on some thermal underwear or camouflage gear? “Over the men’s dressing room is a diorama featuring an old fashioned barn-raising,” created as a nod to “Iowa’s Amish sector.”
It gets weirder from there
Patrons who get hungry will head for Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill area. “This 15,000 sq. ft. nautical-themed entity, located within the 145,000 square foot Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store, features a truly unique atmosphere and design geared for family fun and dining,” the BPS people say. Twelve bowling lanes enable customers to roll a few games while feeling like they are doing so under the ocean, thanks “to underwater scenery of sea turtles, sharks, stingrays and other saltwater species which will also glow in the dark during cosmic bowling. Hand-painted murals depicting oceanic life line the walls and fish, like a 16-foot-long giant squid, hang suspended from the ceiling.” And this is just the place where kids goof off while dad shops in another part of the store!
The Grill offers casual family dining, but it’s several cuts below an Islamorada Fish Company setup. The physical size is still BPS-big (90 seats in the main dining room, 48 in a smaller area and 20 at the bar) but the menu has been cut back. It features appetizers, sandwiches, salads and burgers but, strange considering the underwater theme, darn little fish. Other than the popcorn shrimp, there’s zilch. Price points are modest. The Big Sky Buffalo Burger is $9 and paninis, flatbreads and other casual American fare won’t break the bank, either.
Given the vast data streams produced by BPS’ multifaceted retail operations, we think it’s instructive that the company has scaled back the complexity and price points of its in-house restaurant at its new Iowa store. On a relative basis, the Iowa economy is stronger than that in many other parts of the country. Yet BPS, knowing what it knows, felt it was smart to position its restaurant on the value end of the scale. Keep this move in mind as you plan your restaurant’s strategy for 2010