20 Feet Seafood Breaks the Chain
Marc Cassel and Suzan Fries are content to eat their pie one slice at a time.
The formula has been tested so many times it's almost mathematical law. A chef opens a restaurant, spends a few months working the pass making sure everything is just so, and then, if the business is successful enough, moves on to open more copies of the same restaurant, while quality diminishes — not always, but often.
Dallas is a hotbed for restaurant expansion. Eddy Thretipthuangsin, former chef at Pakpao, announced he'd be opening a second location of his new restaurant Kin Kin Urban Thai before he even opened the first. A third location is on its way, and a website for the group promises more are coming soon. Twisted Root's and Cane Rosso's principals quickly vacated the kitchen to expand. They now have 16 locations between them.
"The temptation to expand immediately is very strong," Marc Cassel, owner of 20 Feet Seafood Joint, says. The popular chef, known for his nine-year stint at The Green Room in Deep Ellum, is taking a different tack for his restaurant, even though he thinks it's perfect for multiple locations. "20 Feet would be a great concept in any inland city," Cassel says. "I'm not ready to go through all that right now."
The decision isn't for lack of opportunity. Cassel says several investors have approached him since 20 Feet opened on Peavy Road more than two years ago. Developers see a swamped dining room and want to lure swarms of customers to their own projects. But before his restaurant replicates like an Internet meme, Cassel wants to be certain the concept has solid footing. "We want to make sure it's bulletproof," he says.
That's one reason Cassel and his wife, Suzan Fries, are still at the restaurant nearly every day. And they don't step back and manage from a bar stool while posting sandwich pictures to Facebook; they work alongside their employees. Fries comes in most mornings to bake Boston and Key lime pies and bread for the lobster rolls. Cassel arrives in the afternoon, working prep until the dinner rush when he expedites and runs plates, working closely with his customers. When your order is ready there's a solid chance Cassel will bring the food to the table himself.
He's also the only restaurant owner who has ever refilled my iced tea. "I'm touching tables more than any other time in my career," he says.
The hard work is paying off, resulting in an incredibly consistent restaurant, which is exceptional considering that 20 Feet essentially serves fast food. Dishes that have been on the menu since the restaurant first opened remain virtually unchanged. From the golden fish and chips made from fresh cod that's broken down onsite, to the mussels spiked with ginger and shiitake mushrooms, to the lemon-tinged lobster roll, 20 Feet serves up the same seafood baskets it did when Cassel first hoisted his pirate flag over the restaurant.
The Green Room mussels are a hold-over from Cassel's nine-year tenure at the Deep Ellum restaurant.
The joint has made some changes, mainly in operations to keep diners happy. Cassel and Fries planned to push booze to the wayside when they first opened, hoping to turn tables quickly, but customers rightly staged a revolt. Oyster slurping and po' boy wrestling go best with alcohol. Soon, the couple offered plastic buckets filled with ice for customers who wanted to bring their own beverages. A new covered patio (air conditioning is on the way) doubled the seating and encouraged customers to linger after a plate full of belly clams. Now a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer at every table is a common sight.
So many customers bring alcohol that Cassel says he's applying for a beer and wine license. BYOB will continue for diners who want to arrive with a bottle, but soon, those who forget won't have to go dry.
While these small tweaks have changed the restaurant experience on a long, slow arc, good food has been a constant — a trait not often found in restaurants that expand quickly. A restaurant's first location might fire on all burners, but adding a second location effectively cuts that well-tuned staff in two and shifts a chef-owner's daily duties from hands-on cooking to operations. Kitchen execution and quality almost always take a hit during expansion, because even the most well-trained staff won't retain the focus of the owner. That's why Cassel says he's being so patient. "I have great confidence in our staff," he says. "But nobody is going to care as much as I do."
That care is evident. The chef who used to preside over what was once Deep Ellum's most popular restaurant now happily picks up spent napkins at a humble fast-food restaurant. His wife bakes one of the city's best Key lime pies.
Neither shows any sign of quitting. "My nine years at the Green Room is almost unheard of," Cassel says when asked if boredom or burnout are issues. Chefs with long tenures at any sort of Dallas restaurant are increasingly rare, but a multi-year stint in a fish shack just isn't done. Whether or not 20 Feet ever expands, Cassel and Fries' dedication to their restaurant is as certain as pi = 3.14159265359. And the basket of golden seafood in front of you is all the better for it.
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