Laurel — Anyone who has lived in Mississippi for any length of time is familiar with the many restaurants that specialize in catfish, but it took a 40-year veteran restaurant owner to come up with a new concept that has led to the opening of 29 locations in five years.
Jim Stringer, past president of the Mississippi Restaurant Association and well-known in the Laurel area as the former owner of the Dixieland Catfish restaurant, learned that seafood restaurants do 80% of their business on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He came up with a simple concept: Build small modular restaurants that have no dining area, only do take-out and are open Thursday through Saturday.
The first Catfish One, located a few miles outside Laurel, was a success. Other locations, all in the Pine Belt, soon followed and the company began to sell franchises — the first in Columbia.
There are now 29 locations, five that are company-owned and 24 franchises in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
Not long after after beginning the Catfish One operation, Stringer sold the company to his grandsons, Joe Michael and Chuck Robertson. Chuck sold his interest to his brother a little later.
Michael was a pharmacist and he worked at both jobs for a while. Now, he’s working full-time as Catfish One’s president at its recently-opened headquarters on Laurel’s Front Street.
“This is a family-oriented business and my grandfather and I work closely together,” according to Robertson. “My parents work in the business, too. And it’s a faith-oriented business. We really believe in divine intervention. We believe in giving God the glory due Him.”
Robertson attributes the company’s rapid expansion to two factors: the concept and the fact that his grandfather spent 40 years fine-tuning his recipes and such cooking techniques as hand-battering.
“It’s the small things that make the difference.”
The three-days-a-week concept wouldn’t work with a large restaurant and high overhead, Robertson said. So his grandfather came up with his plan to keep his overhead low by developing a restaurant kitchen for mass production without having the high overhead of a restaurant seating area and the staff to provide service.
Though his sales volume would be lower than for a full week of being open, his profit margin would be much higher. He would need less land, a much smaller building and his utilities would be cheaper. And, if a large restaurant in a permanent location failed, it would all be a loss but, with this small, mobile unit, it could be moved to another location, if necessary.
Though no longer behind the cooker in the kitchen, Stringer is still active in the business. Among other things, he designs and builds the modular Catfish One restaurants that become franchises.
Each unit is 22 feet by 24 feet, in two sections: a kitchen area in the front and a preparation area behind it. The kitchen has a preparation table, five fryers, heat lamps and a refrigerator, among other equipment. The back area has storage facilities, two freezers, sink, tables and a rest room.
A franchisee pays $75,000 for a Catfish One restaurant with all the equipment. He then moves it to the desired location.
“We prefer that the franchise owner open one of our restaurants in the town where he lives,” Robertson said. “He knows the town and the town knows him.”
Robertson emphasized that the company maintains an interest in each franchise.
“Consistency is the key,” he said. “A new franchisee goes through an intensive four-week training program. Visits are made to each franchise every four to six weeks and this continues as long as the franchise exists. It’s an evaluating process. We maintain an ongoing partnership with each franchise.”
The age of Catfish One franchisees ranges from 22 to the 70s. But a typical franchisee is in his mid-50s.
“He has retired a little early and wants to work but not as hard as in the job he retired from. With a franchise, he can make a good living but with more time off.”
Up until now, Catfish One’s expansion has been by word of mouth, with no marketing or advertising of franchise opportunities. But, beginning the first week in November, that changed.
“We’re becoming pro-active. We’ll go into a town, check zoning and related aspects of opening a franchise. If things look good for success, then we’ll advertise for franchise buyers.”
Robertson praised the Catfish One support team, “young guys who have a wonderful work ethic, the same vision, who know where we’re going.”
Because of this, promotions come from within the company.
As Catfish One expands, the company plans to set up districts, with a support center no more than one-and-a-half hours from any franchise in that district, which will be three hours from north to south for each district.
“This way, our support staff can visit each location regularly without having to travel all the way from the Laurel headquarters.”
And the name, Catfish One?
Robertson said that his grandfather was in the navy and is military-minded. He was reading a book about Air Force One and how it’s self-contained and decided to name his restaurants Catfish One, and have all the red, white and blue, and stars and stripes.
“I added the flying catfish,” he said of the company’s logo.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org.