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

Ones to Watch | By jamie hartford

Fish Grill
An entree from the Fish Grill.

Aharon Klein always had a passion for barbecuing. He started out grilling for family and friends, who enjoyed his fresh fish so much they encouraged him to branch out beyond the backyard. Klein took the suggestion to heart and moved into a small retail space on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Fish Grill was born.

Since opening that first restaurant in 1986, Fish Grill has added three more locations: one on Pico Boulevard near Beverly Hills in 2005; one in Brentwood in the same year; and another by the beach in Malibu in 2008. The restaurants serve sandwiches, tacos, salads, pasta, wraps, and fried fish, but the highlights of the menu are the chain’s mesquite-grilled specialties, including trout, red snapper, salmon, sea bass, and ahi.

“Most restaurants don’t offer mesquite because it’s hard to maintain and hard to vent,” Klein says. “But I feel it’s the ultimate way of cooking fish. It really seals in the flavor.”

The fish is cooked in a firebrick-lined barbecue that serves as the center of the concept’s open-kitchen design. The quality of the product also sets Fish Grill apart from other fast-casual seafood concepts, Klein says. A good portion of the restaurants’ fish comes from local suppliers.

“It’s really very hard to find this level and caliber of fresh fish served quickly in L.A.,” Klein says.

All the food in Klein’s restaurants is prepared according to Jewish dietary laws, which state that for fish to be kosher it must have fins and scales. To that end, you won’t find any shrimp or shellfish on the menu.

“When I was growing up, there were not that many restaurants for kosher customers,” Klein says. “There were fancy restaurants, but nothing in the middle. I wanted to produce fresh, clean, healthy, premium-quality food that would appeal not just to the kosher customer. My goal has been to attract the widest clientele possible.”

Included in that group are Hollywood A-listers looking to grab a bite in a low-key, laidback atmosphere. Recent star sightings at Fish Grill locations included Julia Roberts, Ed Harris, and Howie Mandel. Celebrities such as Andy Garcia, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Amy Smart are regulars, according to the company. The Pico Boulevard location also sees traffic from cast and crew working at the 20th Century Fox Studios lot one block away.

But Fish Grill doesn’t only appeal to the famous. The concept’s leaner fare and cholesterol- and trans fat–free cooking oils attract customers looking for healthier options, and with an average check price of about $10–$12 per person, you don’t have to be a movie star to afford a meal there.

Fish Grill

FOUNDER/PROPRIETOR: Aharon Klein

HQ: Los Angeles, California

YEAR STARTED: 1986

ANNUAL SALES: $2.5 million

TOTAL UNITS: 4

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

Web site: www.fishgrill.com

Fish Grill restaurants allow customers to eat in or call ahead to take out, and the company recently added online ordering. At the original location, about 65 percent of customers dine in, while the other 35 percent get the food to go. At the other locations, the ratio is about 80 percent eat-in to 20 percent takeout, Klein says. The Brentwood store has a strong lunch and quieter dinner traffic, while the daypart mix is about even for the other restaurants. The restaurants also do a small amount of catering.

The four locations range in size from 650 square feet at the original location to about 3,200 square feet in Brentwood. Two are housed in freestanding buildings, and two are part of larger retail developments. The original location, on Beverly Boulevard, adopted a rustic, fisherman’s shanty décor, and the Pico Boulevard store features an updated take on that style. The Malibu location has a surfer theme, while the company commissioned a new design for the Brentwood store in 2005.

Klein tapped Marc Lumer, a neighbor and freelance artist for Warner Bros., Disney, and Dreamworks for the job, and the result is a more spacious design that blends vintage fishing photos with hand-painted floor and wall murals. The Brentwood store will serve as a prototype for future Fish Grill locations.

Until now, Fish Grill has expanded relatively slowly. All four existing locations are company-owned, but Klein says he has had offers from parties interested in opening a franchise.

“I’ve got one eye on franchising, but there are not any immediate plans for it,” he says.

For now, Klein is concentrating on growing his management team and hopes to open a few more stores in other parts of Los Angeles and beyond. Possible areas of expansion include Orange and Ventura counties in California, as well as Las Vegas, the Midwest, and the East Coast.

“I’d like to see at least two more stores in the next couple of years, and I can see at least 10–15 in the near future,” Klein says.

photo courtesy: Fish Grill