Ones to Watch | By judy kneiszel
In 1999 the semi-retired Joe C. “Papaw” Stringer opened the first Catfish One restaurant one night a week for a two-hour period as a hobby.
Within months he was serving more than 400 meals in those two hours, and the former Mississippi restaurateur of the year knew he had a winning concept.
Stringer, now 74, had operated a seafood market and several seafood restaurants through his long career, including Bosun Joe’s Dixieland Catfish Restaurant. Catfish One became his legacy when he passed the torch to grandson Joe-Michael Robertson in 2000. Since then, Robertson has grown the concept to 26 units in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and he isn’t finished yet. Robertson says he’d like to bring Catfish One to the Florida panhandle, Tennessee, Arkansas, and eastern Texas. He’d also like to fill in any holes within an eight-hour drive from the home office in Laurel, Mississippi—about 25 miles north of Hattiesburg.
The growth of Catfish One hasn’t been problem free, however. One big problem, named Katrina, destroyed several of the early units and forced Robertson to rethink the entire Catfish One concept.
“We had been a carryout-only operation,” Robertson says. “But after Katrina the concept evolved with seating and a drive-thru.”
Three units had to be completely rebuilt after the hurricane and others needed major repairs. Today, the carryout-only stores are called the “traditional model” or “Catfish One express” stores. The new concept is a 2,500–3,000-square-foot restaurant that seats 80–110 guests, who order at a counter and are served at their tables.
U.S. farm-raised catfish accounts for 50 percent of Catfish One sales. The menu also includes po’boy sandwiches, wraps, salads, seafood soups, crab legs, and oysters. Signature sides include deep fried dill pickles, baked potato salad, and hush puppies.
A popular meal at Catfish One is the Seafood Platter, which consists of catfish, shrimp, oysters, chicken, and two sides for $12.99. The average ticket is $11 and at that price point, Robertson says he envisions his brand becoming the “quick-serve Red Lobster,” or in Southern terms, “the fish house that has come to town.”
“At a traditional fish house in the country, a meal is going to take a couple of hours,” he says. “At Catfish One you’re in and out in 30 minutes. You get the fish-house quality without the wait.”
Robertson, who became a doctor of pharmacy before deciding he’d rather dispense catfish than prescription medications, says Catfish One operates on four basic principles: family, faith, top-quality food, and great service.
As far as family goes, Robertson is at the helm and Papaw works in the test kitchen to improve products and develop new ones. Robertson’s wife, Jennifer, is the company secretary/treasurer and cousin Brad Johnson is the director of franchise operations. Another cousin, Michael Welch, is the executive vice president, and Robertson’s youngest brother, Jonathan, is director of product development.
PRESIDENT: Joe-Michael Robertson
HQ: Laurel, Mississippi
YEAR STARTED: 1999
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 40
FRANCHISE UNITS: 26
WEB SITE: www.catfishone.net
When it comes to faith, Robertson says he models his business after Chick-fil-A, which means Catfish One restaurants do not sell alcohol and are closed on Sundays.
“How do you justify closing on Sunday to your franchisees?” Robertson says. “In the short term it’s hard to get past 20 percent of sales, but if you give honor to the Lord and give your franchise families and employees a break, you’re going to attract employees who will execute your plan better, treat customers better, and make food better, and you will make up that 20 percent.”
Robertson says he doesn’t hire people based on their faith, but lets employees know that the business is based on Biblical principles.
“We find people with the same ideals will be attracted to that,” he says.
Quality is another of Catfish One’s principal values.
“We have very strict quality controls,” Robertson says. “Catfish can be off-flavor or muddy tasting, but that never happens here because we cook up a batch and taste it before the delivery truck leaves, and we send it back if it’s muddy. Quality is first for us, not price, and we will never sacrifice quality.”
Other quality issues: Catfish One uses stone-ground cornmeal in its hush puppies because, Robertson says, it just tastes better. The company also uses 100 percent peanut oil for frying because it has a higher smoking point, and Robertson believes it is healthier than other oils. Catfish One buys locally grown produce for its salads and seafood from the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
As far as service, Robertson says it includes exemplary customer service as well as the company serving the franchisees. This is the reason he doesn’t want to put more than an eight-hour drive between himself and any Catfish One location.
A three-step training program was developed for Catfish One franchisees. This includes a week of “Catfish College,” then a week spent training in the restaurant before opening and several weeks after the opening.
“Once we get a franchisee going, we are in the unit once a month for the first six months, then every few months,” Robertson says. “Then we are always available to them. We have people committed as personal consultants to each franchisee.”
Robertson says because of that level of commitment, he’s picky about who gets a franchise.
“Our plan is to take the tortoise and hare approach and be the tortoise,” Robertson says. “We want to create a solid foundation and grow slowly, so we are very selective. We want people to develop our concept in a geographic area over the long term. I’d rather have one person who owns 10 Catfish One restaurants in an area than 10 people who own one each.”