Not many contemporary chain restaurants can trace their history back to groceries and green stamps. But Legal Sea Foods, the 28-unit East Coast operation originated in a grocery store that helped pioneer savings stamps. Harry Berkowitz, grandfather of the current head honcho, opened the Legal Cash Market in Boston in 1904. “Legal” referred not to the relative shadiness of the operations, but to the savings stamps issued with each purchase. Stamps were pasted into booklets or folders and redeemed for merchandise.
“It’s not the typical chain,” David Alphonse, director of beverage operations, understates. “It is still family-owned and completely independent.” That suited Alphonse, who grew up in the restaurant business in Boston. Legal Sea Foods operated four restaurants in that city and environs when Alphonse started as a bar manager, “with maybe four or five wines by the glass.”
“I wanted to build a beverage program,” he says, “and I was particularly interested in the depth of the wine list.”
GROWING FROM GROCERIES
In 1950, the grocery store added its own fish market next door, and in 1968, son Harry and wife Harriet set out a few tables and began serving very fresh fish, simply prepared, as well as a seafood chowder that helped build Legal’s reputation. Grandson Roger Berkowitz, a passionate spokesman for the fishing industry, and for the role of seafood in human health, oversees the empire today. Current plans include expansion beyond the 28-unit number, and there already exists a thriving mail- and internet-order business. All of the older restaurants have been extensively updated and renovated. Family history, ownership and vigilance culminate in the company motto: “If it isn’t fresh, it isn’t Legal!”
Although the flagship restaurant is no longer located next door to a seafood market, Legal’s philosophy dictates that the company still buy fish fresh from the docks, and the company runs its own famously fastidious inspection and quality assurance program. Even Phyllis Richman, a famously finicky restaurant critic for the Washington Post, testifies, “I’m afraid to eat raw oysters most places, but I feel safe at Legal. I have no hesitation here to order my tuna rare or my clams on the half shell.”
SOME WINE WITH THAT FISH?
Included among the great inventions of civilization are well-prepared fresh fish and good wine. Celebrated in Egyptian wall paintings and Roman mosaics, the combination is one of the focuses of Legal Sea Foods current beverage program.
The wine lists of Legal Sea Foods are tailored to each unit’s locale. All imported wines do well in the Northeast, while Florida specifically favors Italian wines. As wine styles, varietals and regions become popular, have a particularly good year, or arrive with a buzz, Legal Sea Foods’ Alphonse keeps an eye out for the trends. Pinot gris is particularly popular wine right now, according to Alphonse, and “red wine in general is big. We sell about 65 percent red to 35 percent white.”
Even within a region, the list can change. For the 13 restaurants in Massachusetts, there are four lists; also getting their own lists are the two units in the District of Columbia, three in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in Rhode Island. New York’s two units have comparable lists, as do the New Jersey (two restaurants) and Florida (three restaurants) operations.
Of total sales in the restaurants of Legal Sea Foods, beverages make up 18 to 20 percent–$25 million a year–and about $18 million of that is wine. “Just this past year, spirits began to move up,” Alphonse notes, looking at the figures, “partly because of markets such as Florida that like drinks, but we expect our wine program to remain strong as we open new restaurants in the New York area.”
STRUCTURE AND BALANCE
What does the wine list need to be? Like wine, those which are structured, balanced and interesting become the most popular. Like that of a racehorse, the wine list’s structure should have a purpose, and a very
similar one to move well, last the distance, make money for its owners, and send a frisson of excitement through the stands. In structuring his wine list, Alphonse chose “a nucleus of wines that I knew would work, about a hundred.”
Having a solid core generates a kind of gravity that allows wines that become popular in a particular area, wines of particular interest and wines circulating with a buzz to come and go in a kind of orbit. Something good and satisfying that enhances the meal and the experience of dining out can be found in the solar system or its
Reading the tasting notes of a well-structured list tells the diner that care has been taken in selecting the wines offered. Legal Sea Foods gives additional evidence of taking care of the diner by canny pricing. Higher-end wines are not marked up as much as they perhaps could be. “My feeling,” Alphonse explains, “is they should not be for display only or sold as trophies, but more as a special part of the evening, of the whole dining experience.”
The same principle of accommodating the diner prevails in the mid-range as well. “While we pay close attention to PCs (pour cost percentages, or cost of the beverage served divided by its price), we take dollars to the bank, not percentages. If I make a $10 profit on a bottle of wine, even if the PC is 75%, this is a good outcome for me. The guests can see that they receive value at a good price, and they are more likely to return.”
Legal offers 35 wines by the glass to ensure that its diverse clientele–families, business people, travelers and tourists, blue-collar and white-collar workers–can find a glass of wine they like.
When Alphonse started with Legal Sea Foods, there were plans to expand. “I had to look for the suppliers and wholesalers who would work well for the planned restaurants,” he says, “and this meant learning the country outside Massachusetts.” He discovered Evan Goldstein, director of hospitality education for Allied Domecq, and Bob Trimble, wine educator for Diageo.
The enthusiasm and expertise these representatives can convey to wait staff about wines the restaurant stocks or is planning to buy translate immediately into sales. Goldstein, for example, worked in kitchens in Paris and in the Bay Area and Napa Valley of California, in addition to his qualifications as a Master Sommelier.
“These professional wine educators conduct very thorough training sessions,” Alphonse says, “perhaps two or three hours, and build wonderful confidence in the people who will be serving their wines. The passion and the depth of experience they bring to explaining and selling wine are a tremendous asset to our wine program.
“When we introduce changes or new offerings, I schedule training and visit, and then I give the individual restaurants six weeks to two months to work them into their own rhythms.
WIDTH AND DEPTH
The 28 restaurants of Legal Sea Foods vary in size and location, from 125 to 300 seats, and from stand-alone destination establishments to locations in shopping malls and in two airports. Freshness of the seafood served is still a top priority, and the quality of Legal Sea Foods’ famous chowder (served at the last five Presidential inaugurations), but the menu now includes a light chowder and innovative meat dishes. For the 125-seat restaurants, 175 bottles of wine are listed, and in the 300-seat restaurants, 350 bottles. The Boston flagship restaurant lists 575.
The wine buying program is centrally controlled, but Alphonse selects locally. “I buy the wines I select from the local wholesaler,” he explains, “then have the national account representative coordinate the allocation in other states.”
The solidity of the wine-list structure and its longevity under centralized control has allowed the build-up of verticals in certain favorite wines. This affords the diner the unique pleasure of sampling various vintages, perhaps in repeat visits, and gives the wine lists a thrilling depth. Some verticals cover more than twenty years.
FRESH FISH, A GLASS OF WINE AND THOU
“An important aspect of wine service,” Alphonse believes, “is that people often want to order their favorites. It’s like a relationship: you know with whom you want to spend your time. Servers need to recognize and respect these preferences.”
That said, there is also a role for leadership: bringing something new to the table, introducing less familiar wines or special finds. “Alsatian and Austrian wines look very interesting right now,” Alphonse notes, “and more wines from the Loire Valley.” A special event or evening’s tasting can be an enjoyable introduction to these potential new partners.
BETTER BY HALF
While half-bottles seem to offer less value if the price per ounce is the only consideration, they maximize other values important to a restaurant’s guests, such as offering them the opportunity to sample an unknown wine they may find interesting, keeping their alcohol consumption modest, and corralling the total cost of lunch or dinner. A couple wanting a different wine with their first and second courses, or main course and dessert can select two half-bottles, or a half-bottle and a split of say, champagne, or a half-bottle of a dessert wine.
“Half-bottles are so attractive for so many reasons,” Alphonse agrees, “but at first, the warehousers and distributors were reluctant to deal with a whole new set of SKUs [stock-keeping units].”
It’s one of the age-old tensions: the person managing the storehouse wants simplicity and the restaurateur wants variety, diversity. Wine producers, too, see some of their costs multiplied when they bottle a given volume of wine in twice as many bottles. They balance this against dispersion: half-bottles may go where full bottles do not, or go first. The smaller-volume bottles invite sampling and tasting, so they open prospects for gaining enthusiasts.
Two other factors also favor half-bottles: lower blood-alcohol limits for drivers in an environment of increased enforcement, and cautious, value-driven spending that accompanies slowdowns, dips and gaps in the economy.
The restaurants of Legal Sea Foods offer more than 75 half-bottles.
STRIKING THE NOTES
Experienced wine buffs have long known that Legal Sea Foods offers a fine list, winning many awards and at exceptionally restrained prices. But how to choose? A helpful aspect of the written list is its division into types and arrangement within each type in ascending order according to body and flavor intensity.
Servers are guided by the tasting notes, food pairings, and other useful information in the corporate wine book.
Aficionados and aspirants agree that an inspiring perspective of the Legal Sea Foods wine list can be enjoyed from the vantage of a tasting flight. Each of the four flights chardonnay, light white, dry white, dry red offers three two-ounce pours of premium wines for $6.50 to $8.75.
The variety and balance of the selected wines gives the flights a venturesome quality, and a well-constructed comparison to study and savor. Each of the three wines represents a different price point (between $30 and $49 a bottle for the chardonnays, for example, and $27 to $49 a bottle for the dry reds). Aficionados recognize that at all three price points, the wines and vintages are excellent buys.
The flights have become so popular the spirits program does its own witty take with a Martini flight of sampler cocktails.
CHARDONNAY $8.75 by the glass
PRICE BY THE BOTTLE
1999 Beringer, Napa, California $30
2000 Arrowood “Grand Archer,”
Napa, California $33
1998 Domaine F & L Pillot “Noyer’s Brets” Puligny Montrachet $49
LIGHT WHITE $8.25 by the glass
PRICE BY THE BOTTLE
1999 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve,
Alsace, France $30
1997 Trimbach “Cuvée Frederic Emile” Riesling, Alsace, France $46
2000 Pierre Sparr Gewurtztraminer, Alsace, France $26
DRY WHITE $6.50 by the glass
PRICE BY THE BOTTLE
2001 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Marlbotough, New Zealand $26
2001 Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma, California $23
2000 Pascal Jolivet Pouilly Fumé, Loire, France $28
DRY RED $8.75 by the glass
PRICE BY THE BOTTLE
1999 Niebaum-Coppola “Claret” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California $30
1999 Beringer “Founder’s Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California $27
1998 Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma, California $49