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Upscaling seafood

When Bill King's parents went out for dinner decades ago, they did something unusual for the time. They took the kid along. "My parents didn't believe in babysitters," King says. "So I had the opportunity to eat in a lot of seafood places." Good thing. Today, as executive director of special services for the McCormick & Schmick's seafood chain, King has quite a parental task himself: He oversees the culinary exploits of 52 restaurants which compete with upscale indies in each of their markets. But unlike many of those, McCormick & Schmick's has to deliver upscale seafood dishes without the corresponding high prices, while still staying ahead of the culinary curve.

That can be quite a fishing expedition, but King has his methods. For example, he takes "traditional fishhouse recipes" and adds contemporary touches. (His Alaska King salmon is roasted on a cedar plank, while the Hawaiian swordfish arrives seared in a crust of sesame seeds and wasabi.) Checks have to fall in a range that generates typical unit sales of $4.4 million per year, but King uses M&S's considerable volume-purchasing power to the fullest advantage.

At the same time, however, the chain learned long ago that seafood tastes vary widely from region to region, so menus have to be localized (about 30% of the 70-75 items on each unit's menu are unique to that market). While promoting consistency in purchasing, menu development, and plate presentation, King also has learned to let go. "It's a collective effort," says King, who devotes much time to cooking alongside his unit-level chefs.

As though all of this weren't enough to keep him busy, King's also at work on M&S Grill, a comfort-food concept he developed, and one that he envisions "filling in" Schmick's foothold markets. "M&S Grill's my baby," he says.

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