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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 15, 2011 10 years ago

School of Fish

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Randy Essig hopes to parlay his seafood restaurant's success into a national brand of specialty foods. He already sells 50,000 Key lime pies a year.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

REVIEW SUMMARY
Company. Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant
Industry. Hospitality
Key. Creating a brand with your restaurant can create new opportunities.

Randy Essig reaches into a cavernous walk-in freezer at his Bonita Springs headquarters and pulls out his latest creation: Key lime pie on a stick.

The sweet treat — frozen Key lime pie dipped in chocolate on a popsicle stick — is among the new products that Essig hopes will triple his restaurant company's business within the next couple of years.

“Everybody's looking for a little hook,” says Essig, 64, president and CEO of Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant, waiving the popsicle like a magic wand.

But this little gem of a dessert isn't headed for the menu of his well-known Naples and Bonita Springs restaurants. He's hoping to sell them in specialty food stores, airports and ballparks across the country.

Already, Essig sells 50,000 Key lime pies a year to food connoisseurs in Texas, Delaware and other states. He's even sold pies on QVC television shopping channel, selling more than 2,000 in six minutes. Seafood soups and dips are next.

To accommodate the future growth, Essig borrowed $1 million from Synovus Bank and bought two buildings at the Bernwood Business Park in Bonita Springs.

He's invested about $500,000 in new equipment too, including an ozonated water system that kills bacteria and is widely used by large food conglomerates for food safety.

His plan is to grow his brand into a specialty food manufacturer, and he's hired the Illinois marketing firm Wencel Worldwide to help him. Wencel has helped grow brands such as Gorton's and Dean Foods. This year alone, Essig says he's spent $100,000 on branding efforts.

Currently, Essig says his company's sales total more than $5 million annually, with 80% of the revenues coming from the two restaurants. But if he's successful distributing pies, dips and soups nationally, Essig estimates Randy's could hit sales of $10 million to $15 million annually. “You can only do so much at the restaurant,” he says.

Still, Essig would like to open two more restaurants so he can leverage size for seafood purchasing power. He says wholesale fish prices have risen 40% in the last three years, in part because of last summer's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But even butter has risen 43%. “That's a ton of money,” he says.

Restaurant to manufacturer
Essig remembers growing up in the luncheonette his parents owned in Syracuse, N.Y., and loving it. “I loved the hustle-bustle,” he says.

As a kitchen hand at 15, Essig fried haddock on Friday nights at Atlantic Seafood in North Syracuse. His mother would send him straight to the shower when he got home, but he still smelled so much of fried fish that he jokes he couldn't get a date.

Still, Essig learned a valuable lesson at an early age. The proprietor of Atlantic Seafood made big batches of macaroni and cheese and coleslaw and sold the containers for a tidy profit. “It was a beautiful thing,” Essig recalls.

Essig carried that lesson years later, when he opened Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant in 2003 in Naples. His Key lime pies became such a hit that customers began asking for them by mail. Now, three employees make pies full time and Randy's sells as many as 50,000 a year.

Essig sells pies directly to specialty food markets, but he's looking for distributors, though not the giants of the industry, such as Sysco. “Sysco has 11 pies; you get lost in the mix,” Essig says. “I want the little guys who are hungry.”

While he's been selling seafood dips and soups for nearly four years, Essig says he's going to be pushing those harder. “Your packaging has to be aggressive,” he says.

New package
The key to selling more pies, soups and dips is to get consumers to reach into the grocery case to buy them.

“You have to have the packaging that induces a trial,” says Mike Wencel Sr., president and CEO of Wencel Worldwide. “He's got the taste, but the packaging is not there.”

Wencel helped Essig redesign the company's packaging with bright colors to catch customer's eyes. “If it doesn't fly off the shelf, [markets] are not going to take your product,” Wencel says.

Fact is, Essig is competing against huge national and international brands with deep pockets for marketing. “You're competing against the major leagues,” says Wencel. “To survive this competition today is pretty tough.”

One advantage Essig has is that his Key lime pies taste better than the competition, Wencel says. “Sara Lee just came out with a Key lime pie, but there isn't any competition that has the taste appeal,” he notes.

Airside marketing

Chances are good that passengers flying into Fort Myers on Southwest Airlines already know about Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant before they land.

Randy Essig, the seafood restaurant's president and CEO, advertises in the airline's in-flight magazine to bring visitors to his restaurants in Naples and Bonita Springs.

Then, visitors stroll past Palm City Market in Concourse D at Southwest Florida International Airport, where airport concessionaire HMS Host sells Randy's famous Key lime pies and seafood specialties.

If they rent a car at the airport, visitors will see Randy's ads on the map that the clerk gives them. They might then hear Randy's ads on any of the five radio stations on which he advertises.

Having a big presence at the airport is important because it's the gateway for the thousands of visitors. It helps solve what used to be a big challenge: “They always find you when they leave,” Essig chuckles.

Still, Essig says it wasn't easy getting into the airport. Strict regulations and dealing with third-party operator HMS Host meant Essig had to create a how-to manual for every detail, down to which hand to use to make a lobster-spread wrap sandwich. “It took me a year to get a banner,” he says.

Despite the difficult of operating at the airport, the location is profitable and drives traffic to the restaurants. “It's worth it from the marketing standpoint,” Essig says.

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