Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Ones to Watch | By jamie hartford

Fish Express
A salad from Fish Express.

Back in 2007, the team at Dallas Restaurant Group noticed an opportunity. The company already operated a fine-dining seafood restaurant, Go Fish Ocean Club, but for Dallas residents looking for seafood at a lower price point the options were mostly fried and fattening. They set out to create an alternative.

“We wanted to provide something healthy for our guests, so we created a fast-casual concept that would bridge the gap between fine dining and Long John Silver’s,” says Nafees Alam, vice president of Dallas Restaurant Group. “We didn’t set out to be another fried-food joint.”

The first Fish Express restaurant opened in north Dallas in February 2007, and the company added another location in Frisco in 2008. While the menu does include the requisite fried fish, french fries, and hush puppies, most options are not the typical limited-service seafood fare. Fish Express specializes in grilled fish, including Atlantic salmon, mahi mahi, tuna, and catfish. Entrées such as salads, po’ boy sandwiches, quesadillas, tacos, and wraps are supplemented by healthier side options, including mango slaw, grilled vegetables, and jasmine rice pilaf. From its chipotle salmon sandwich to ginger Thai noodle salad to seafood gumbo, the menu borrows from a number of cuisines. Check averages range from $10 to $11 per person.

“We take great pride in providing the freshest and best-quality food at that price point,” Alam says.

To prove its commitment to offering healthy fare, Fish Express partnered with Medical City Heart, the cardiovascular program at Dallas’s Medical City Hospital, to certify heart-healthy options on its menu. Based on American Heart Association guidelines for calories, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and dietary fiber, dietitians evaluated the restaurants’ offerings and identified choices worthy of a heart-healthy label. Nearly half of the offerings at Fish Express have earned the distinction, according to the company.

Setting Fish Express apart from other limited-service options is the fact that the concept’s parent company is already known around the Dallas area for its two fine-dining restaurants—Go Fish Ocean Club and Dallas Fish Market. Dallas Fish Market was named one of the top 10 seafood restaurants in 2008 by Bon Appétit magazine.

“That gives us a little bit of an edge over our competition,” Alam says.

Both Fish Express locations also serve beer and wine, along with nonalcoholic drinks like soda and iced tea. At 5–6 percent, alcohol makes up a relatively small portion of sales but is nonetheless an option some of the restaurants’ customers appreciate, Alam says.

“This summer, to quench people’s thirst in the hot Texas heat, we’re launching a mango sangria,” he says.

The demographics shift depending on the time and day, Alam says. Lunch typically brings in 21- to 40-year-olds from the shopping centers, gyms, and offices that surround both locations. Weekends tend to draw more families with kids from the residential areas within three to four miles.

“On the weekends we see a lot of parents encouraging their kids to eat fish and kids trying fish for the first time,” Alam says.

Fish Express

PRESIDENT: Mike Hoque

HQ: Dallas, Texas

YEAR STARTED: 2007

ANNUAL SALES: $1.3 million

TOTAL UNITS: 2

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

WEB SITE: www.myfishexpress.com

At the original north Dallas location, business is evenly spread over the lunch and dinner dayparts, whereas the Frisco store has a stronger showing at lunch followed by a moderate dinner. Three-quarters of the restaurants’ customers eat in, while the remaining 25 percent of business is takeout. Both locations open at 11 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. seven days a week.

The restaurants are housed in corner spots in in-line shopping strips. They range from 2,400–2,500 square feet and include patio space for outdoor dining. The modern, minimalist interiors have an ocean theme.

Both existing Fish Express locations are company-owned, as will be two others that are in the works—one in Southlake and another next to the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. The company plans to finish construction of those locations by the end of 2009 and hopes to open another four, all in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, in 2010.

“I think there is a lot of room for growth here in the area,” Alam says. “We feel comfortable in our ability to grow restaurants here as time progresses.”

Alam says franchising could also enter the picture as soon as 2011.

“Once we are finished with our current expansion plan, we will know how things are going and can start thinking about franchising,” he says.

Over the next five years, the company hopes to grow at a rate of four restaurants per year and is considering locations as far away as Austin, Texas, and Atlanta.

photo courtesy: fish express