Nashville, Tenn.-based fast-casual seafood chain Captain D’s is targeting the Tampa Bay region for expansion after opening three new restaurants in northern Florida and one in the Orlando area, with more to follow thanks to a multi-unit development agreement with an Orlando franchisee.
With its miles of pristine beaches and rich history of pirate legends such as Jose Gaspar – and the annual Gasparilla festivities inspired by his exploits – the Tampa metro would seem to be a natural fit for a brand that leans heavily on coastal and seafaring imagery and already has 30 locations in Florida.
“Tampa is a thriving metropolitan area that’s growing, and obviously other food retailers, particularly fast-food companies, have been very successful here,” said Captain D’s chief development officer and Tampa resident Michael Arrowsmith. “We believe that with our offering – being a fast-casual destination for the seafood customer – we are going to be very successful here, as well.”
Arrowsmith’s colleague – Mark Levis, senior director of franchise development – said he plans to meet with franchisee candidates who are ready to open a Tampa-area Captain D’s “sooner than later.”
“We’re looking for people who are qualified from a liquidity standpoint and motivated and engaged throughout the qualification process and want to hit the ground running with us,” Levis said. “We have phenomenal franchise field support so we can help them right out of the gate. We are targeting folks who will be committed to us long term and want to grow with us long term, not just for one or two years and then sell to someone else. And there’s certainly a lot of potential in the central and south Florida corridor. There are a lot of available markets in those parts of the state.”
Captain D’s has proven to be a solid investment for restaurateurs in recent years. In 2016, the company achieved its fourth consecutive year of record-high, systemwide average unit value (AUV), and sixth consecutive year of positive growth. It has 518 restaurants in 21 states, making it the No. 1 fast-casual seafood chain when measured by AUV. Success has emboldened the company, prompting it to embark on an aggressive campaign to grow its footprint.
“Captain D’s experienced tremendous growth last year and as we ride that momentum in 2017, we’ve made Florida a priority market for franchise expansion,” Arrowsmith stated in a news release. “With existing restaurants in the area consistently performing well, we’re eager to catapult our presence even more in the region.”
Levis said a key to Captain D’s recent run of success has been its introduction of grilled fish products, which appeal more to health-conscious consumers who want to avoid fried foods. “That has really helped catapult us from a quick-service restaurant brand to a fast-casual brand,” he said. The chain’s look also received a makeover, in 2012, and about 60 percent of existing restaurants have been converted to the new branding, which features an orange fish emblazoned with “Est. 1969” and a revamped tagline: “Seafood Kitchen.”
Arrowsmith said the revamped look and menu changes have also served to attract businesspeople who already have franchise agreements with other quick-service and fast-casual restaurant chains.
“We certainly do have fried fish, and we sell a lot of it, but half of our menu consists of grilled items,” he said. “Particularly with the kids’ menu – a parent could bring in their child for a meal and get nothing at all that’s fried. Also, consumers are looking for an inviting place to bring their family … and we make seafood affordable and accessible. That’s another reason why franchisees for other brands are coming to us. We are providing something that they just don’t have.”
Despite the brand’s lack of presence in the Tampa Bay region, Arrowsmith is confident that local consumers will quickly become enthusiastic about eating at Captain D’s.
“We have a grand-opening program that we go through for each restaurant when we go into a new market,” he explained. “What we’ve learned is that if we can get people to come and try a Captain D’s, then they’ll come back, because the food is just really, really good and people are surprised, when they try our food, at how good it tastes and what a high-quality, healthy product it is. So our challenge is to get them in there the first time. If we can get them in the restaurant, they will come back.”
Arrowsmith is also excited about the potential for Tampa Bay to serve as a test market for new menu items.
“We test a lot of new products every year and are always rolling out new products on a limited-time or permanent basis,” he said. “We don’t have anything planned for Tampa right now but that could change as we get closer to opening up our first location. But that’s one of the attractive things about the Tampa Bay market. It’s almost a ‘middle America’ market that has a lot of congruency with the rest of the country. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we do some new product testing here down the road when we have more restaurants.”