Legal Sea Foods tests waters for westward expansion

New owner PPX Hospitality is trying the brand as a virtual concept in Chicago and Columbus ahead of plans to open physical restaurants there.
Legal Sea Foods exterior
The New England institution is setting its sights on the Midwest. / Photograph: Shutterstock

After the dust settled around PPX Hospitality’s acquisition of Legal Sea Foods late last year, the company’s thoughts turned west, to the vast swaths of the country where the 71-year-old New England institution has yet to plant its flag.

“We started thinking about, OK, where do we see this brand going outside of the East Coast and the Eastern seaboard?” said Kim Giguere-Lapine, CMO of PPX. “What we didn’t know is how far west could we take it?”

To find out, 23-unit Legal is getting some help from its new sister brand, the PPX-owned Smith & Wollensky steakhouse chain. Smith & Wollensky restaurants in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, have been serving up a limited Legal Sea Foods menu for delivery and takeout only for the past few months. The company is monitoring the virtual brands to see whether those markets could support physical restaurants, and the results have been promising. 

Legal worked with DoorDash to set up the digital version of the brand, and initially did nothing to promote it or inform customers of its relationship with Smith & Wollensky. It generated about six to 10 orders a day, which didn’t seem like much to the company, but impressed the delivery provider.

“DoorDash seemed to think that we were blowing it out of the water,” Giguere-Lapine said. “‘We’re only getting a few orders a day,’ but they said that’s fantastic, because you’re not doing any promoting.”

Legal has since started pushing the brand and offering pickup, and volumes are now 50% higher than what they were before. It has fine-tuned its menu for delivery, and Giguere-Lapine said about 95% of it travels well—even the lobster, which is available steamed or baked.

“The lobster travels better than some of the fried food, to be quite honest,” she said. 

Legal Sea Foods lobsterLegal Sea Foods' Gulf of Maine lobster / Photograph courtesy of Legal Sea Foods

Ultimately though, the virtual brands are a means to an end. 

“We don’t think we’re going to get rich with ghost kitchens,” said Giguere-Lapine. “We think this is going to tell us what the appetite is for this brand here in this market.”

The longtime Smith & Wollensky marketer spoke from Chicago, where she was scouting potential sites and competition for her new charge. There is more available real estate than in the past after many restaurants vacated their leases amid the pandemic, she said, and Legal’s plans to open an outpost in the city are “moving quickly.”

Boston-based Legal Sea Foods has a handful of East Coast locations outside of its core New England market, but spreading the brand across the country was not feasible in the age of print, radio and TV marketing, Giguere-Lapine said. With the rise of digital media, “you don’t have to spend that kind of money, so you have a much better chance of spreading the word or spreading the brand,” she said. 

As it looks to grow Legal, PPX will target markets where it already has a Smith & Wollensky location to ease travel and staffing. Las Vegas, the steakhouse chain’s westernmost market, is another possibility. 

Smith & Wollensky is also based in Boston and, like Legal, sources its seafood from local fishermen and producers in the area. That connection has helped smooth the logistics of shipping Legal’s cold-water fish and crustaceans cross-country.

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