For me, when it comes to mortadella and bresaola its Jimmy’s Food Store. Burrata and brie de nagis? It can only be Scardello. As for fresh seafood, look no further than TJ’s Fresh Seafood Market. In addition to TJ’s great seafood, they also offer some pretty cool merch, including that gorgeous tableware by VIETRI you’re always drooling over in Bon Appetit and and on Food Network.

And, oh my sweet Larry, have you seen the new VIETRI Bellezza Fish dinnerware collection? It is so pretty! I’m not normally one who likes motif-style dinnerware, but the muted colors and subtlety of shape would be perfect for a coastal home’s table or a formal, outdoor dinner party!

So I’m happy to report that TJ’s Seafood Market has announced a another VIETRI Trunk Show showcasing the Italian importer’s newest items lines and offering 20% off any VIETRI in the store! Woo-hoo!

TJ’s Fresh Seafood Market, a VIETRI Gold retailer, will showcase the newest VIETRI collections at their Fall 2010 Trunk Show on Wednesday, October 13th from 6-8pm, for discounts on all VIETRI purchases, as well as complimentary wine and hors d’oeurvers catered by TJ’s award-winning kitchen.

TJ’s will offer a 20% DISCOUNT on all VIETRI in-stock purchases the day of the Trunk Show, and a 10% DISCOUNT on special orders.

Need a private consultation to update your VIETRI collection? Starting a new one? Want to create a unique bridal registry? VIETRI experts will be on hand to help with all your VIETRI needs.

What: TJ’s Vietri Trunk Show
Why: Wine, Hors D’oervres, New Product Showcase & 20% Savings!
When: October 13th from 6 to 8 p.m.
Who: Open To The Public
Where: TJ’s Fresh Seafood Market
11661 Preston Rd – Suite 149
Dallas, TX
(214) 691 2369

The bar and restaurant scene around Dallas Fort Worth is somewhat unique in opportunities and growth potential. It seems to act as a test bed for good ideas and the tremendous variety of excellent choices and good business operators is not unlike a proving ground for those who dream of owning their own business.

Two of the more successful examples can be traced back to a good idea with roots in Dallas’ Schneider Plaza. Originally a deli, then Michelle’s Café, then later Shell’s Seafood which became Half Shells and spun the origin of Rock Fish and Twin Peaks and Fish City Grill.

Dallas is not exactly the first place you think of when considering fresh seafood, but Bill Bayne started even farther from the ocean by working at a fish diner called Penguins in far West Texas. Bayne explains, “I came to Dallas to go to graduate school because I had been working as a waiter in college and, oddly, I wanted to get an education so I wouldn’t be stuck working in restaurants.” A smile crosses his face as he looks around the Half Shell’s at the Shops at Legacy. With some experience and a freshly minted graduate degree, he went to work at Nate’s Seafood in Addison in accounting and managing.

“I remember it well, I started at Nate’s just at the same time that Tiananmen Square was happening. I had just come back from a backpacking trip to China I went on just after graduation. It was so odd sitting in Nate’s watching that go on,” Bill remembers. After 8 years working in a variety of roles from accounting to bar and kitchen manager at Nate’s, the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and Bill began looking for an opportunity of his own.

In Schneider Plaza there was a location called Michelle’s Café, owned by Randy and Michelle DeWitt. Together they shortened the name to Shell’s and began to offer Cajun inspired upscale casual fish-centric food. It began to take off and soon more locations were being sought but a big bump was about to hit.

The name Shell’s Seafood was apparently trademarked by a company out of Florida, which Bill and Randy found out when notice of a lawsuit arrived. So, creatively, a Half was added and a new venture was set to open at Preston and Park in Plano – the first Rock Fish.

Schneider Plaza continued under the Half Shells banner but it wasn’t long until some differences led to the end of the partnership. “We had some philosophical differences, Randy wanted to go with stand alone locations in the big box areas and I really thought our “Sweet Spot” was “in line” locations inside developments like the Shops at Legacy with high pedestrian traffic near upscale women’s fashion stores.” Bill points out that Rock Fish was really successful with their push to big box locations, “We parted company and I ended up with the Schneider Plaza location as part of the dissolution.”

“I really love that location, I have a lot of good memories from that place including meeting my wife there.” His wife, Lovett, was working as a waitress when they met and many of the current staff give her outgoing personality credit for being just the thing that perfectly fit with his. “We didn’t want to fall into the same issues we had with the Shell’s name. We had a contest with staff and customers to find a name that we could trademark and Fish City Grill won.”

Walking into the Schneider Plaza location you are struck by how small it is, compact might be an overstatement or understatement depending on your perspective. Barely 40 seats available and outside patio seating for another dozen, the snug location still manages to push over a million dollars of sales through the arched doorway every year. The Plano Half Shell’s is easily three times the size and shares many of the same thematic style of home made signs with catchy double entendres.

If you were to try and find a word to describe the décor, the words “Lake Cabin” pop to mind. This carries over to the Fish City Grill locations, as does the menu. “Fish City and Half Shells are one in the same.”

With two Half Shell and 21 Fish City locations from Colorado to Florida, the concept had taken on a life of it’s own. There have been other bumps along the way, but Bill credits a couple of things implemented early to their success, “Our chalk board menu gives some control to each location to run their own specials. All the dishes have to be approved by me, but each day the manager can run with what is available and customize their own line up.” Even the old Schneider Plaza location still sells the majority of its dinners from the “board” rather than the printed menu, “This keeps the choices as a constant variable.”

One of the items on the printed menu Bill is particularly proud of is the Clam Nachos, he smiles, “It is one of the few things I developed myself.” A salty tortilla chip is swathed with tangy and spicy chipotle tartar sauce, topped with a cornmeal breaded clam and finished with fresh pico and guacamole. The variety of flavors tickle your taste buds with enough spicy-cool variety to make you stop and say, “wow.”

At Schneider Plaza the lead chalkboard item on the day Best of Texas stopped by was a Macadamia Crusted Flounder served with mashed potatos and steamed asparagus. The light flaky fish balanced the crisp texture of the breading making a brilliant combination.

“You have to remember Texas does have the third longest coastline after Alaska and Florida. While we may be inland here in Dallas, we have some great suppliers,” Says Bill. The success of the restaurants has been helped by market trends towards fish as a healthier option to the traditional meat and potato dinner.

The issues facing any fish specialty include those who simply hold a personal bias against seafood explains Bill,  “I am pretty proud of our non seafood items too, like Mexican Meatloaf, but sticking with our core strength is going to be things our cooks have developed. I do get asked when we are going to offer a steak and I say never. After all, we know, we are a fish restaurant.”

In recent years sustainability of the fisheries has become an issue in some areas. A number of years ago the Northern Cod fishery off the East Coast of Canada was completely closed due to a number of factors from overfishing and overpopulation of seals pressuring the fishery that was once thought bottomless. Muses Bill, “We do have some people who ask about that, but it is pretty rare, the biggest thing is having a supplier you know you can trust.” The nine local DFW locations all rely on Fruge’s Seafood and locations in Denver have their own supply chain.

“We also use both farm raised and wild salmon. Some people will swear they prefer one over the other, but given availability we offer many seasonal choices, too.” Seafood, shell fish, and lake fare like trout and crawfish are also staples of the menu. “Some things like tilapia are the basis of many of our dishes and we make great use of shrimp and other things that are local to Texas fisheries.”

In any rapidly growing business like Fish City/Half Shells, finding the right people to work in the locations can be a challenge. Explaining his process, “We can teach a process to almost anyone but you can’t teach personality. For the servers the biggest thing is “Would I want to go out for a drink with this person”, and for managers it is if we think the person is someone we would invite to our own dinner table for dinner. That qualifier has helped us find some great people, some have been with us from the beginning and others have become great friends.”

There have been some hard lessons as the upscale retail areas they decided to anchor their locations around have taken a considerable hit with the recession, “I think we did get a little arrogant with our real-estate choices. Denver is a great example of when commercial development grew faster than the population could support we made a mistake in growing too quickly there. We recently closed one of our two locations there, the surviving location is now doing great business but we really had to make some tough choices.” Of the 23 locations 8 of them are “Company Stores” with the others being franchised.

“That business hub of corporations here in Dallas specializing in food has been great for us, a number of our franchisees are ex Brinker executives. Bennigan’s and TGIFriday’s have also been great sources of experience for us as well. There are over 250 people employed in the locations and around 18 in the Addison corporate offices. It is necessary to have a Human Resources person to handle the administrative side but I still like to know who works for us.”

The fish business has been as good to Bill and Lovett as they have been to it. The original cramped location has blossomed into a growing empire that has managed to maintain a personal touch that can only be achieved with a personal interest. It is obvious that Bill still loves to go to work every day. The variable of 8 chalkboard items along with the regular menu seems to keep the customer base happy to come in too.

My wife and I just celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary and decided to try a place we had heard about in Allen. Nate’s Seafood & Steakhouse was a little hard to find, but worth the effort. We were surprised by the weeknight crowd – it was packed- and then we discovered and experienced the food.

We had the Blackened Alligator Nuggets for an appetizer. Then my dear wife had the Salmon with Pontchartrain Sauce and I had the Fried Seafood Platter. Everything was delicious and cooked to perfection. We were too full to try the desserts but everyone around us ordered the Key Lime Pie or the Bread Pudding. They looked great!

Word to the wise: Don’t wait until your 36th!

Nate’s Seafood & Steakhouse
190 East Stacy Rd, Suite 1800
Allen, TX 75002
(972) 678-2223

For me, when it comes to mortadella and bresaola its Jimmy’s Food Store. Burrata and brie de nagis? It can only be Scardello. As for fresh seafood, look no further than TJ’s Fresh Seafood Market.

Though the record shows that TJ’s has been well respected since it arrived on the scene in 1989, I figured on the heels of their 20th anniversary it might be a good idea to gently remind those of you in North Texas that you don’t have to go coastal to indulge in your passion for all things seafood.

I know, I know. Dallas isn’t exactly known for its seafood.

Big Tex, big hair, the Cotton Bowl and Reunion Tower? Yes. Seafood? No.

85 loyal customers recently surprised TJ's owner Caren Alexis with a birthday party.

85 loyal customers recently surprised TJ's owner Caren Alexis with a birthday party.

The Alexis family, customers who bought TJ’s in 1999 when the founding family was ready to retire, agrees. “People don’t think of Dallas as a seafood town, but with DFW Airport, we can have what’s fresh from every corner of the globe in a matter of hours. We may be landlocked, but our customers have access to some of the freshest seafood in the nation,” says Caren Alexis.

With DFW home to over a dozen gourmet supermarkets – TJ’s actually sits defiantly across the street from one of the largest Whole Foods Markets in America – and despite the logistical challenge of being nowhere near an ocean, how does a family owned seafood market survive?

It’s all about the relationships.

TJ’s has carefully crafted relationships with fish purveyors around the world. “TJ’s orders the freshest seafood from us,” says Willy Warner of Steve Connolly Seafood Company in Boston. “It’s hard to believe, but TJ’s customers in Dallas are eating the same fish that our locals are eating at Boston’s finest restaurants the same day. They are one of the premier seafood markets in America.”

TJ’s employees also drive to the airport to pick up air-freight shipments and this ensures no middlemen and guarantees the freshest possible seafood for their customers. Caren explains, “The great thing about Dallas is that if you’re in Seattle, you tend to get fresh west coast fish. In Boston, you tend to get fresh east coast fish. But we have figured out how to get what is fresh from both coasts by 10 a.m!”

As for TJ’s customers?

Caren knows her customers by first name and remembers their favorite fish. “One customer likes me to cut the ‘grey’ off of her salmon. Another calls me almost every week to make her tuna tartar. And I have lists of people I call if someone wants a specialty fish. If someone wants just a little black cod but less than my minimum order, I call everyone else who likes black cod.”

With an attitude like that, I’m certain TJ’s will be around to celebrate another 20 year anniversary.

So the next time you’re craving fresh fish, might I suggest you bypass the big box stores and opt for going locally owned and operated?

TJ’s Fresh Seafood Market
11661 Preston Rd – Suite 149
Dallas, TX
(214) 691 2369


Lobster photo courtesy of AikiDude.