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Menu strategist award winner: Bill King, McCormick & Schmick's

Transitioning from a small group of restaurants into a national chain is no short order. And it's double trouble when the main dish is fish. That's when Bill King came on board.While his schoolmates fiddled with their chicken fingers, young Bill King was developing a taste for swordfish.

"I was an only child, and my parents didn't believe in babysitters," he recalls. Instead, they'd take him along as they indulged a love of dining out. "I come from a food-oriented family —all of my mom's brothers were chefs. So, I had the opportunity to eat in a lot of old-school seafood places."

Today, as executive director of special services for the 52-unit McCormick & Schmick's seafood chain, his mission is delivering the upscale delights of that old guard, without the stuffiness or nose bleed-level prices. Complicating the task is a shift in public sensibilities since those days, with consumers now looking for more of a dining adventure than the safe, familiar seafood meals they might have sought back then.

For McCormick & Schmick's, says King, that often means "traditional fishhouse recipes" that harken back to his youth, but with decidedly contemporary and upscale touches. For example, the salmon is Alaska King, and it's roasted on a cedar plank. The swordfish is identified as Hawaiian, and is seared with a crust of sesame seeds and wasabi.

Checks have to fall in a range that yields an average of $43 at dinner and $22 at lunch, and the dishes have to be produced in sufficient volume to generate typical unit sales of $4.4 million per year, according to the company.

"We try to maintain moderate price points," says King, who strives to keep most entrees around $20 through his simultaneous role as purchasing director. "Getting bigger has helped. We have more leverage in buying power these days."

It may be one of the few ways that size works to an upscale seafood chain's advantage. Fresh fish is notoriously difficult to assess and buy in large quantities, and McCormick & Schmick's units change their menus twice daily, so a typical outlet will use 30-40 species. What's more, the chain learned long ago that seafood tastes vary widely from region to region, so menus have to be localized accordingly.

"When you have only five or 10 units, you can allow chefs the freedom to manage their own programs," notes King.

That was the way the company was running when he came on board, with little corporate control and chefs at each restaurant creating their own menus and doing their own purchasing. Indeed, he joined the company himself as a sous chef charged with helping to open restaurant No. 5. He stayed to develop the culinary, purchasing, and training programs that enabled a handful of seafood outlets to grow into a viable chain.

"Bill King evolved along with us," says Doug Schmick, who, along with co-founder Bill McCormick, is still involved in the business after buying it back a few years ago from Avado Brands. The operation has since become a public company, so that King's efforts to hold down costs and foster sales is routinely scrutinized by shareholders.

From a humble start, King's role expanded to include the development of centralized purchasing and other support systems, and the cultivation of a core menu for geographically scattered restaurants ranging 6,000-14,000 sq. ft., in a variety of settings and configurations. But, while promoting consistency in purchasing, menu development, and plate presentation, he also had to foster some degree of customization.

Today, about 30% of the 70-75 items on each unit's menu are peculiar to that market. The Baltimore restaurant, for instance, has Maryland crab soup, and a local Kent Island striped bass.

"It's a collective effort," says King, who notes that he doesn't have a formal R&D facility but develops and tests recipes in the units. "I get together with some of the unit-level chefs and the eight regional supervising chefs, and we cook."

Because of seafood's short shelf life, restaurants also have to purchase some of their specialties on a local basis. King works with unit chefs to develop relationships with purveyors and work out specs.

One of the ways King sought to keep costs in line was by pushing labor back onto suppliers. Originally, McCormick & Schmick's bought mostly whole, round fish, which had to be dressed and filleted in-house—work that not only was labor-intensive, but required a skilled cook. Now, most fish is purchased in fillet form and just portioned for recipes. That knocked hours off the chefs' day, freeing them to focus on more creative efforts, or take a turn on the line.

Prior to the opening of a restaurant, King works with the unit chef to develop the local components of the menu and train the culinary staff. With McCormick & Schmick's expanding at the rate of 8-10 restaurants a year, it's an aspect of the job that keeps King busy.

Of particular interest to King is the expansion of M&S Grill, a comfort-food concept that he developed about 11 years ago. "That's my baby," he says of the four-unit operation, which will soon add two more outlets. "It's a good way to fill in our markets," he notes.

M&S Grill affords King a break from seafood. In his 34 years in the business, King hasn't had much time out of the water. After a stint at Cornell University, he landed his first job at the landmark Phillips Crab House in Ocean City, MD, in 1970. "That was influential for me," he says. "The menu was just simple, straightforward classic dishes."

He cut his culinary teeth on dishes like crab cakes, pan-fried oysters, pan-fried trout, and stuffed flounder—many of the same dishes he menus today, in an updated form, at McCormick & Schmick's.

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