Legal Sea Foods’ new problem-solving philosophy brings a sea change

legal sea foods storefront
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With inspiration from an unlikely source, operations have changed significantly inside the kitchens of Legal Sea Foods, the high-volume polished-casual operation concentrated along the East Coast. 

Supplies have been moved closer to the cooks—to “live where they’re used,” says Executive Chef Rich Vellante—so staffers on the line never have to step away and hunt for something. Inventories are shallower and less food is batch-cooked, both to bolster freshness and reduce storage space. A new position—line back, comparable to a front-of-house bar back—was created to make sure the cooks won’t run out of anything, be it towels or fillets.  And some recipes were tweaked to be less anxiety-provoking, lessening the chances a cook will botch a key ingredient because of being too wound up. 

“Our thinking was, ‘How can we set this up so that all cooks have to do is cook?’” Vellante recalls.

The changes extend to the front of house, where a constant brainstorm is underway to lessen the time guests have to wait to be greeted, seated, served a drink or provided with their check. 

But the biggest change, Vellante says, has been the about-face in Legal’s thinking. With Legal’s 35 restaurants averaging nearly $7 million in annual sales on a typical per-person tab of $29.60, according to Technomic data, the outlets have to crank. As with any restaurant, the emphasis is on speed and throughput. Then, some five years ago, the privately owned company had that approach dramatically called into question. 

Legal processes its own seafood from fish right off the boat, breaking down the catch in a central production facility. With the chain in a growth mode and Legal also selling products via supermarkets, the company worried that its processing operation didn’t have the capacity to meet rising demand. Owner Roger Berkowitz was considering the development of a second plant when a board member made a suggestion.

The director was familiar with the unconventional approach Toyota Motor Corp. had taken in the 1950s to boost car output, save money and simultaneously upgrade craftsmanship. The automaker had fundamentally re-thought how its factories should work, snagging the attention three decades later of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher named James Womack, who then wrote several books on the strategy. Womack had created a nonprofit called the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) to popularize the approach, which held the promise of reinvigorating U.S. manufacturing.

Why not talk to Womack about trying that approach on seafood processing? Berkowitz, known to be a maverick, figured he’d check it out. 

Womack inspected Legal’s commissary and assured Berkowitz that the plant could more than meet the company’s seafood needs regardless of how big it grew. It would just take a change in approach, starting with the need to patiently analyze and rethink operations, he said. 

LEI officials painstakingly studied the operations to identify wasted motion and brainstorm more efficient means of production. Then, experiments were set up to see if the expectations would be realized. The recommendations ranged from how fish were filleted to how the finished products were distributed. 

The rethinking delivered. Legal never opened the second plant—even though production needs soared—saving the company millions of dollars.

The approach was so transformative and effective, according to observers at the time, that the suggestion was raised of applying the same principles to Legal’s restaurants. 

Vellante, a classically trained chef, recalls that he and others were skeptical. Take the thinking that went into building Camrys and RAV4s and apply it to the grilling and artful presentation of a grilled salmon fillet? Really? “To our knowledge, it had never been done,” he recalls. 

And what about this business of slowing things down? “There’s this fast-twitch muscle focus in the restaurant business,” says Vellante. 

But lean thinking wasn’t about production lines or stopwatches. It was about boiling down a problem to its core, then studying and questioning the processes involved—"really observing and watching the work being done,” says Vellante. “It’s essentially slowing yourself down. This is counterintuitive in the restaurant business, where it’s all about hustle.” 

He started to come around as the process began. Together with Joshua Howell, a Lean Enterprise Institute representative who’d worked for Starbucks and applied some lean production techniques there with noticeable success, Legal officials invested considerable time in studying what guests experienced when they visited a Legal restaurant. 

“We started with, ‘What are the things that can go wrong?’” recalls Howell. “The overall theme that emerged is that guests can experience unwanted delays. You arrive at the restaurant and you might have to wait to be seated, you might have to wait for a drink, you may have to wait for your server, you may have to wait for your check to be delivered.

“One by one, the team and I started tackling those problems,” he recalls. Experiments would be set up to see what would address each problem. If it worked, great. If not, a new approach would be tried based on what had been learned. 

To address ticket times, a restaurant’s executive chef spent a night monitoring when orders went into and out of the kitchen. Legal had a target of getting orders out of the kitchen within 15 minutes. Turns out the kitchen was failing to hit that objective 70% of the time. 

That prompted Legal’s observations to shift to the back of house. “The next question they asked was, ‘What station was delivering food to the window last?’” Howell recalls. “Essentially, what they were asking was, ‘What station was the bottleneck?’”

More observation brought the insight that the oven station was the last to have its meal component ready for 45% of orders. The highest seller from that station was a seafood casserole, a multi-ingredient dish that was complicated to prepare.

“What they discovered was that the cook at the oven station often became overwhelmed with too many orders,” says Howell. “They started studying the detailed steps required to prepare seafood casserole. It led to some ideas being generated by the chefs and the cooks themselves on how seafood casserole could change so the cook would be less likely to fall behind.”

The standard procedure of observing, analyzing and trying fixes—what Legal has systemized into the acronym PDCA, for Plan, Do, Check, Adjust—was applied to other stations. “We said, ‘Let’s watch the cooks on the line,’” recalls Vellante. “Let’s watch how they cook salmon.” 

“As we started to watch, we realized that much of the delays that were happening, and much of the stress, came from cooks who had to leave the line, who had to get product, who ran out of towels,” he continues. “We found ourselves saying, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a lot of on-line work, and a lot of off-line work. We’re expecting the cook to do both. What if we experiment with some of the off-line work—for instance, having the product there for them, having the utensils handy?’”

That led to the creation of the line back—ironically, a position with its roots in the manufacturing that had been LEI’s focus. “In the production world, it’s called a water spider,” says Vellante. 

The individual would restock whatever a cook or chef needed. 

Those steps in the right direction prompted further observation and experimentation. “They did things like modify the work station so that the higher-used ingredients were closer to the cook,” says Howell. “Instead of stuffing his station with supplies, they asked, ‘What would he need for an hour?’ That in effect shrunk the work station. There was just less motion, less digging, less reaching, less pulling out drawers. All of that stuff brought down the time.“

For guests, the payoffs were faster service and better preparation, Vellante says. For the staff, “The kitchen became more calm. There was less noise. There was less frantic moments.”

Lean thinking has become a part of Legal’s culture, though with a different label. “The principles basically are to mindfully observe, and that’s what we call it,” says Vellante. 

Employees are encouraged to think about their processes and roles, and to think out alternatives that benefit customers, guests and the staff. The mantra, according to Vellante: “Let’s think about our problems first. When we address those problems, let’s not just throw money or technology or people at it. Let’s think about it. What we found over time, whenever we had a problem, we could apply this thinking and process to create real value.”

A major benefit, he says, is the recognition of employees as the experts on the work they do. “You have an individual who is a prep cook. He or she is now empowered to improve his work or his process.” 

“We have learned that the people who have embraced this have become better thinkers, better planners, better problem solvers, better at executing and better at developing people,” says Vellante. “We’re not perfect. It’s a continual improvement process.”


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