User-Friendly Wayne Schick reshapes Mitchell’s Fish Market’s menu with extraordinary yet accessible dishes.
By Monica Rogers
Executive Corporate Chef Wayne Schick has revamped Mitchell’s Fish Market’s fish and nonseafood categories while also improving the consistent execution of the menu.
Mitchell’s retooled Simply Grilled plates to include potatoes blended with butter, dairy and scallions; veggies more precisely cut; and fish with a sweet butter and scallion finish.
Cedar Roasted Atlantic Salmon, newly paired with honey-balsamic eggplant, roasted vegetables, asparagus, portobello relish and goat cheese, is a best-selling entree.
The vastly expanded kids’ menu now features seven junior portions of fresh crab cakes, grilled salmon, filet mignon and other entrees, combined with salads, sides and signature desserts.
“Big eyes, gaping mouths,” was the reaction Mitchell’s aimed for with mammoth desserts such as the ultra rich Java Lava.
Being head chef in a company full of chefs has its plusses. Just ask Wayne Schick, vice president and executive corporate chef at Columbus, Ohio-based Mitchell’s Fish Market, where culinary-school-trained chefs head the kitchens at all 14 units. He’ll tell you there’s no lack of creativity. Everyone can execute to a high level. And there’s a built-in mentor in founder Cameron Mitchell, himself a Culinary Institute of America grad.
But on the flip side? “You’ve really got to put your pride in your back pocket,” says Schick, who focuses his talented team on Mitchell’s mantras: Nothing goes on the plate unless the consumer wants it there. And it’s not the lofty and unusual recipes that win repeat business but excellent execution of the accessible.
It may be tedious to play those songs over and over again, but the results have caught analyst attention. “Cameron Mitchell is a company worth watching precisely because of its thoughtful and consumer-focused innovation,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for Columbus, Ohio-based WD Partners, a restaurant strategy and design consultancy. “They understand that really good food doesn’t have to be complicated, just well executed. When a customer leaves Mitchell’s, he leaves saying, ‘Man, those were mashed potatoes just like mom used to make!’ Or more likely, ‘Man those were mashed potatoes I wish my mom used to make.’”
Funny Lombardi should mention potatoes, because they are a good example of the customer-focused innovation. Last year, Mitchell’s started mixing hot butter, milk and scallions into its garlic mashed potatoes to order. Then the chain stopped adding herbs to potatoes and veggies for kids’ plates.
“Scallions in the mashed potatoes, pieces of green pepper in the buttered corn, parsley salt on the french fries. Kids hate that,” Schick says. “So when we get an order from the kids’ menu, we keep the butter in and the little green bits out.”
Potatoes are just the start. To make the “ordinary extraordinary,” Schick reshaped recipes in several menu categories throughout 2005, without major impact on food or labor costs.
Starting with the most basic, last spring Schick retooled the Simply Grilled fresh fish category, which offers 10 selections daily. Besides sprucing up the potatoes, he added a touch of fresh minced shallot to the sweet-butter finish on the fish and made knife cuts more precise on the veggies. “We’ve vowed never to chop up a fresh vegetable again,” Schick says.
“We touched and studied everything about the Simply Grilled category, even switching to a new, oval plate, which we felt better enhanced the natural shape of the fish,” he adds.
Other fish fixes include a new presentation and sides for blackened fish, which used to come with mashed potatoes and vegetables. The fish is now rubbed with Bayou Cajun spices, pan-blackened and served over shrimp jambalaya with green beans and mushrooms and finished with dark-roux-étouffée sauce and cane syrup. Guests like the changes: Sales of blackened fish are up 9 percent.
Schick also tweaked Garlic-Broiled Shrimp, $17.95, a top-selling Chefs Specialties entree that operations felt had more potential. Rather than just present the shrimp on a plate, it’s now presented on a skewer with cloves of garlic confit; the skewer is removed tableside.
One more change: this section’s Cedar Roasted Atlantic Salmon, $19.95. Perched on a small cedar plank, the fish is topped with portobello relish and goat cheese, and newly paired with honey-balsamic eggplant, roasted vegetables and asparagus. Formerly, the fish came on a bigger plank with mashed potatoes, green beans and pico de gallo. One of the top-five sellers at lunch and among the top 10 at dinner, the new version represents about 5 percent of lunch entree sales—a 30 percent increase over sales of the former version.
Working with fish has come easily to Schick. Although he grew up in a Midwest farming community, he says he took to seafood, well, like a fish to water. Schick, who did not go to culinary school, first learned seafood as part of a three-year apprenticeship at the Westin Hotels. Following stints at several restaurant companies, Schick served as executive chef of Charlie’s Crab, a Chuck Muer Restaurant, for five years. He then came to Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, where he worked one year at the Cap City Diner before helping to develop and launch Mitchell’s Fish Market in 1998.
Walking the Line
“I find seafood to be very complex and rewarding,” says Schick, who has been a seafood chef for about 14 years now. “The diversity is incredible. Even featuring 12 different species—as we do at Mitchell’s every day—that barely dips into the hundreds of possibilities.”
Staying up to date on seafood supply, demand and fishing practices takes considerable commitment. He spends about 40 percent of his time on procurement. “We walk the line between what the customer demands and what’s right for the world’s oceans,” he says.
The rest of his time is devoted to operations, consistent execution of the menu, menu development, and executive- and regional-chef development.
Schick’s own development started early on. He grew up in a family of eight with back-acre groves of fruit trees, berry patches, red currant bushes and a prolific vegetable plot. “Every year was full of planting, tending, canning and freezing every fruit and vegetable that would grow in Ohio,” he says. Schick tried all sorts of culinary experiments with broccoli, beans and cauliflower. He was cooking family meals by the time he was 12. “Being a large family, we all helped,” he says. “It was either wash the dishes or cook the meal. Cooking sounded more fun to me.”
Big Fish, Small Fish and Nonfish
Staying in touch with that kid-like enthusiasm for fresh, wholesome ingredients made it easier for Schick to create Mitchell’s successful new children’s menu. Since its spring 2005 launch, the menu has helped increase traffic from families with young children by about 5 percent to 10 percent and has doubled kid check averages to $7.40 from $4.95.
Mitchell’s Fish Market
Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Columbus, Ohio
2005 Systemwide Sales
$19 lunch, $38 dinner
Average Unit Volume
3 in 2006
Replacing a short list of kid favorites that had a few fish options thrown in, the new menu rolls the original six options into one Little Fish section. A new Big Fish category includes seven junior-sized meals such as the Chesapeake Bay Crab Cake plate, $8.95, with mashed potatoes and sweet corn. He also added a nine-item Sides and Salads section, which includes fresh strawberries, sweet corn and shoestring french fries, plus two specialty desserts.
Improving and expanding nonseafood options has been an important strategy at Mitchell’s, as well. Last spring Schick added Spinach and Artichoke Dip with Garlic Pita Chips, $9.95, which is now “near the top” of the appetizer menu in sales, he says.
In the steak section, he added a 16-ounce rib-eye, $26.95, and a 10-ounce prime sirloin, $22.95, smothered with garlic shrimp in garlic-wine sauce. Schick made presentations more “chop house” in style, switching to new plates and increasing the portion size of side dishes by 25 percent.
Side dishes also now merit their own menu category. “Previous to this we didn’t have side dishes offered as a la carte items,” he says. “But this seemed to fit the chop-house approach better.”
Schick has also worked to improve the menu behind the scenes. To smooth kitchen throughput, he eliminated or altered several dishes that had relied on crossover from multiple stations. “These were items that would start at the saute and then go to the grill or fry station to be completed,” Schick explains. For example, he removed Hot & Sour Swordfish from the menu because it had jalapeo-jelly-glazed bell peppers from the saute station, fried onion straws from the fry station and glazed swordfish from the grill.
But Schick saved complicated dishes: The Market Trio, $19.95, one of the top-five-selling entrees, used to be passed from the saute station, where blackened mahi mahi and cedar-roasted Atlantic salmon were plated, over to the grill station for the addition of Shanghai scallops. Speeding the process, cooks now plate scallops on a separate rectangular side dish that nests into the serving platter. “The effect of eliminating all that passing around was very dynamic, speeding service and allowing us to better and more consistently produce,” Schick says.
While many execution efficiencies come from corporate, chefs are free to create their own daily specials, some of which make it to the core menu. “It’s imperative for us to keep the chefs involved in the menu,” Schick says, “both for their own personal gratification and ownership, and because the concept benefits from more ideas. We work as a team, and in nine years, I have rarely created a new dish by myself.”
An amalgam of the best ideas makes it to the core menu. Case in point: Mitchell’s retooled Cedar Roasted Atlantic Salmon to eliminate starches and enhance its roasted flavors. Three to five chef teams presented ideas for how to accomplish this. Schick married two of the ideas—honey-balsamic eggplant and roasted vegetables, and the portobello relish—in the new dish.
Unit chefs will also work with Schick to drive guest counts at lunch with items that differentiate lunch from dinner. “Specalty sandwiches, salads and nonfish dishes, things like that,” says Schick. The company is also testing new presentations for raw-bar items, tableside whipped cream service for desserts, and more fresh fruit juices and garnishes at the bar.
Chefs are already flexing their creative muscles for show-and-tell sessions this spring and fall. They will showcase some dishes they have featured as specials, some tailored to Schick’s requests for items he wants to add or revamp this year, and others completely blue-sky.
But one thing’s certain: “When you get three or four chefs working on the same new menu item, everyone will bring something to the plate,” Schick concludes.
Seared Rare Salt ’n Pepper Tuna, with apricot-ale sauce, sesame crackers, pickled cucumber and wasabi, $9.50
Citrus Salmon Salad: arugula, greens, cashews, goat cheese and fresh poached salmon in citrus vinaigrette, $10.95
Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes, with scallion mashed potatoes and sweet-corn saute, $21.95
Shang Hai Sampler: fresh Atlantic salmon, scallops and shrimp, with spinach, sticky rice and cucumber-wasabi slaw, $18.95
Shrimp Garganelli: gulf shrimp and garganelli pasta tossed with house-made marinara and Parmesan, $7.95
Sharkfin Pie: butter-fudge ice cream, honey-roasted peanuts, fudge and peanut butter in a cookie crust, $6.50