ROY MAYNARD, email@example.com
It was less than a year ago that Scott Norden and David Weaver opened The Catch. Now customers in Tyler, East Texas and beyond are hooked.
Norden and Weaver have now opened The Catch restaurants in Longview, Lindale and Waco. A Burleson location opens today, and restaurants in Texarkana and Atascocita will open within weeks.
And a different take on the fast-casual seafood joint - The Boiling Catch - will open its doors in late September on South Broadway Avenue.
“We had hopes,” said Norden on Tuesday. “When you launch something like this, you always have great hopes. You’re optimistic. But we had no idea it would connect with the customers like this.”
It was a risk; the fast-casual format was new and untried in this market. In a fast-casual restaurant, patrons order their food at the counter, then take a seat. Their food is delivered - the goal is within eight to 10 minutes, according to Weaver.
It’s different, but customers seemed willing to try it, particularly at lunch, when many are pressed for time.
“When you’re in a full-service restaurant, you might wait for the hostess to seat you, then you’ll wait for your drinks to arrive, and you’ll wait even longer for your meal,” Weaver said. “We wanted to eliminate that wait time. We want to present full-service food, without the time or the full-service prices”
In the first few weeks of opening the restaurant at Beckham Avenue and Fifth Street, Weaver and Norden stationed servers at the door. They would greet customers, hand them menus and explain the fast-casual system.
“Even now, you can spot those first-time guests,” Norden said. “We know to greet them and help them understand how it works.”
The restaurant has the feel of an old-fashioned fish house, with unassuming décor and a patio with picnic tables.
“It’s very expensive to get into the restaurant business, and a lot of restaurants have to charge a lot of money just to recoup that,” Weaver said. “We didn’t go that route. We wanted it simple, with the focus on the food. So we don’t have the shiniest décor. It’s just comfortable and relaxed. And people seem to like that.”
Ultimately, it’s all about the food, Weaver said.
“We think of it as Americana seafood,” he explained. “It ranges from catfish and hushpuppies to crab and crawfish and gumbo. It’s a menu that really seems to resonate with East Texans, and we think it will resonate with folks beyond this area.”
They’ve adapted the menu some since opening last November. They’ve added broiled seafood, along with fried, and customers can even mix-and-match. Entrée prices range from $8.99 for shrimp (popcorn and jumbo) to $12.99 for most combos, to $19.99 for the Admiral’s Platter (chicken tender, shrimp, catfish, crawfish, whitefish and oysters).
A new offering is oysters on the half-shell. At market price (usually $12 to $14 a dozen), they’re less expensive than many other restaurants in town.
“As we try new things, we pay attention to how people respond,” Norton said.
Added Weaver, “The customer gets the vote. What’s really rewarding, for us, is hearing a customer tell us he drove an hour and a half to get here. When people are passionate about what we’re doing - that’s when it counts. It’s humbling.”
The goal now is to build relationships with suppliers, Nordon said.
Last week, for example, a crawfish farmer called Nordon with news that he had a rare summer harvest of live crawfish.
“I asked how much he had,” Nordon said. “He said 150 pounds, and I said I’ll take them all.”
The mudbugs arrived the next day, and The Catch took to social media to announce the limited supply of boiled crawfish.
“People were surprised, but they sure didn’t last long,” he said.
The Catch had barely been open three months before Norton and Weaver were ready to expand. The Longview restaurant opened its doors in February. A Waco location came in May, and a Lindale restaurant opened in June.
“Tyler has been a great launching pad for us,” Weaver said. “We’ve been very fortunate.”
Replicating success is really a matter of knowing what works and what doesn’t. A big part of the Tyler restaurant’s success is its partnership with the Whitehouse school district’s culinary arts program. Whitehouse students get real-world experience working in a busy restaurant - and not just bussing tables. They’ve helped design the menu, and they’re key employees.
“That’s something we want to have as part of our platform for all the restaurants,” Weaver said. “We love the ability to partner with the schools. When you’re building a brand, you have to look at what’s been successful. And that’s been successful.”
Still, the pair will go off-script - just a bit - for the new South Broadway Avenue restaurant, The Boiling Catch. It will focus more on boiled seafood, including crab, lobster, crawfish and shrimp. It will feature steam pots and a wider variety of oysters.
“This is something Tyler doesn’t have,” Nordon said. “I went up to Maryland to do some research, and I did some crabbing. I learned a lot.”
The Boiling Catch, 7922 S. Broadway Ave., near The Diner, is slated to open in late September.
By the end of 2016, The Catch will be in eight locations. The year following could see the addition of 10 more. Each store employs 20 to 25 people.
“It’s very exciting to see what’s going on,” Weaver said. “We’re now ready to start talking about franchising it.”
Nordon and Weaver hope to add more restaurants (or franchises) in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and beyond.
“This is very much a coastal seafood menu,” Weaver said. We’re not very far from the coast ourselves. But as you get further and further and go inland, I think we’re going to see growth on a whole other level - you won’t find this kind of seafood anywhere but The Catch.”
They’re experimenting with live entertainment - “We find that it pairs well with seafood,” Nordon said - and with happy hour specials.
The key is coming up with a model that works.
“If you create something that connects with the guests, and that you - and other people - can operate profitably, then you’ve done something,” Weaver said. “It’s hard work, but in the end, it’s worth it.”