Published News

Restaurant Hospitality - March, 1999

Gina Lavecchia
Concepts of Tomorrow: Aquarium Under The Sea

...continued from Published News

Tilman Fertitta grimaces at the "theme restaurant" label, at least in reference to his newest concept, Aquarium. "It's not a theme restaurant," he asserts, no doubt conscious of the recent struggles of the eatertainment outfits like Rainforest Café and Planet Hollywood. So just what is his underwater-themed eatery? "It's a seafood restaurant," he says. "The entertainment value is second."

Why the distinction? The chairman, president and C.E.O. of Landry's Restaurants says that even at the height of their respective successes, few would ever call the eatertainment restaurants "great". And Tilman Fertitta wants Aquarium to be known as a great restaurant. "Do you know anyone that's ever gone back to a theme restaurant for the food?" asks the man who's been dubbed "local restaurant czar." "Of course not."

Aquarium customers now line up for three-hour waits, but the concept is only five months old. Fertitta is acutely award of the face that with many theme concepts, the novelty wears off as soon as the honeymoon is over. So how will Fertitta keep the love alive? By focusing his energies on what he says has made Landry's Seafood Restaurants a five-brand, 120-unit, $311-million dollars company-the food.

Just how important is the food? Fertitta, known as a demanding leader, claims that he held back the opening of Aquarium for three months after the space's completion because the food wasn't quite up to snuff.

That said, make no mistake: Aquarium is huge on theme. The restaurant is exactly what its name says it is: An aquarium - but we're not talking about a few fish tanks. This is Texas, after all, and the restaurant is a Texas-sized Aquarium, boasting the world's tallest fish tank, and housing thousands of sea creatures.

Aquarium is the showpiece of the Kemah Boardwalk, a new 14-acre entertainment complex in Kemah, Texas, overlooking Galveston Bay. The waterfront project was masterminded by Fertitta and opened last fall. There are retail shops, a hotel, a water garden, a boardwalk and family-oriented amusements. And of course, there are the Landry's restaurant concepts, including Aquarium, Landry's Seafood House, Joe's Crab Shack, Willie G's and The Crab House.

Fertitta's diligence about the food seems to have paid off in not only sales volume, but in consistently good reviews from local critics.

One of them wrote, "You may be pleasantly surprised by the food. It's far less homogenized and formulaic than you might suppose for such a gimmicky setting. Right now, they are serving the most ambitious food in the area."

Gimmicky? Well, It's a matter of Opinion. (Another local publication gave Aquarium the award for "Most Original Restaurant.") What's certain is that the concept is visually stunning. Guests enter from the first floor's Bamboo Bar and scale a circular staircase to the dining room. The steps wind around the world's largest fish tank, a 15,000 gallon, 35-foot cylindrical aquarium filled with a multitude of sea creatures and underwater vegetation. The second floor's circular, 200-seat dining space is surrounded by 36,000 gallons of water contained in floor-to-ceiling tanks. Here, more than 100 species of tropical fish from the Caribbean, South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Hawaiian water cohabitate. The dining room also features two additional tanks in the center of the room, home to a predatory lionfish and the small fish of the coral thicket and the living coral reef. Twice a day, guests stop in mid-meal to watch as marine biologists mingle and hand feed the fish, some of which are more than six feet long.

A third floor features a ballroom, with a party space for 200 guests. The room's balcony and three walls of windows offer spectacular views of Galveston's channel, bay, and the waterfront plaza. Parties held here account for about 4% of Aquarium's sales.

Heed the mistakes of theme restaurants before him, Fertitta is looking only at limited expansion - 12 to 15 concepts domestically. He's not ruling out adding a limited number of overseas units. "Who know on the total number," he muses. "I definitely won't overbuild it. That would be a mistake."

Though no definite plans have yet been made, Fertitta says he is investigating places like Orlando and Las Vegas. "We're looking for a mix of business and convention clientele, tourists and local patrons," he says.

He adds that expansion funding for the publicly held company will come from cash on hand and lines of credit, if necessary.

Fertitta estimates that Aquarium's 1999 sales will reach $8 million. A mouth-watering number, until you consider that Fertitta's focus on food quality comes at a price, namely, food costs of 36%. Fertitta expect that as the waterfront continues to grow, its number of visitors will increase from a current 2 million a year to 4 million. (Doing massive volume is also essential consider that Aquarium's payroll includes a full-time marine biologist and several assistants to attend to the fish and the complex aquarium systems.)

The target customer? "It's all over the place," says Fertitta, who has not yet executed any formal marketing of the concept. "It's everything from prom night and wedding anniversaries to couples going out to dinner on a weeknight."

Landry's executive chef Kathy Ruiz, with input from Fertitta, developed an accordingly broad menu, ranging from $8 po-boys to $27 stuffed lobster tails. "We wanted to be careful not to make it only a special occasion destination, and we wanted it to be accessible to everyone," says Ruiz.

The menu, dominated by seafood, draws a check average of $23. Selections range from the mainstream to the adventurous. Most prices are only slightly higher than those at Landry's other waterfront eateries.

"The atmosphere is incredible and the food needed to match it," says Ruiz. "Tilman wanted it to be differently from everything else the company has done, so we use more fresh fish, and I was able to do more difficult specialty toppings for them." She adds that guests have also learned that the staff - which includes at least three chef/kitchen managers on duty every night - will modify menu items to create made-to-order selections. "Sometimes I wonder why we did a menu in the first place," she laughs.

There are 12 appetizers, including crab wontons with ginger-soy dipping sauce ($7.99) and an avocado-lump crab cocktail ($10.99). There's jumbo shrimp prepared nine different ways ($13.99 to $17.99), combo platters and mixed-grill entrees, sandwiches and burgers ($6.99 to $11.99), and pastas, salads, and soups. Ruiz's entrees also include a sautéed gulf red snapper topped with crab-avocado Pico de gallo ($18.99), horseradish-crusted salmon ($16.99), and ginger-pepper tuna ($16.99).

For those squeamish about indulging in fish as their entrée's cousins swim by, there are eight beef and fowl selections ($13.99 to $18.99). Daily specials are also important to the menu mix, bringing in repeat business. Ruiz does a "daily rotisserie" special, such as prime rib or pork loin. A full-time pastry chef, John MacArevey, formerly of Four Seasons, crafts desserts evoking images of the sea and underwater life. Wine lists offer items from every day selections to $125 special occasion bottles.

"It's like nothing else you've ever seen," said Fertitta. "You'd never call it a 'theme restaurant."

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