After opening seven Half Shell Oyster House restaurants in six years, the four owners of Gulf Coast Restaurant Group are feeling good about the year their brand has had and about its future.
“We will do over $20 million in sales this year for the first time,” said owner Bob Taylor.
The first Half Shell opened in downtown Gulfport in 2009. Now Taylor, Kevin Fish, Rob Heffner and Brian Raspberry also have two restaurants in Biloxi, one inside the Biloxi Hard Rock, as well as in Sarasota, Fla., Mobile, Hattiesburg and the newest in Flowood. “It opened three weeks ago and it’s our highest volume restaurant right now,” Taylor said.
The restaurants employ over 500 people.
Fish, Heffner and Raspberry handle the day-to-day operations of marketing, menu development, management hiring and development, staff training programs and facilities maintenance.
“My main focus is the development of the company moving forward,” Taylor said. That includes site selection, banking, decor, restaurant design and building on the brand’s familiarity.
“When we opened in Hattiesburg we had significant brand awareness due to the fact that people come to the Coast and had experienced the Half Shell. The same has happened in Flowood and to a good degree, Mobile,” Taylor said.
Even as 2015 is winding down, the partners have one more opening planned, the third for the year after the Biloxi Hard Rock and Flowood. “We just signed a deal in Spanish Fort, Ala.,” Taylor said. “We’re going into the old Wintzell’s Oyster House.” That one is expected to open late this year.
Taylor said there may be more restaurants opening in the Jackson area because by having multiple locations in larger markets, advertising dollars can be more efficient.
“We have got a deal signed in Madison in the area off Grand View Boulevard near the new Sam’s. Depending on how we do there, we may look at a third option,” he said.
The group now has sights set on Pensacola, Fla., Oxford and Tupelo. Other potential locations are Covington and Mandeville in Louisiana and the Birmingham, Tuscaloosa markets.
“Our goal is to open two to three Half Shells a year for as long as we can keep up on the HR side and I think we’re able to do that,” Taylor said. “We rely heavily on promotions from within. Our employees know that the sky is the limit for advancement as long as they perform well.”
The partners rely on its team of seasoned general managers who operate the locations. “That’s really helped us focus a lot of our energies on expanding our brand rather than micro managing each individual restaurant,” Taylor said.
The goal is to keep the brand unique and offer quality food at prices below those at fine dining restaurants. “We have silverware rolled in linens and a nice French Quarter feel in the restaurants. Each restaurant is unique in design – no cookie cutter mentality. It creates more work in the design phase but we feel it is important to have that aspect. Each matches the building we’re in,” Taylor said.
Another key to growing the brand is food quality. “We make all the recipes in house. We don’t buy frozen, precooked items. There is a lot of preparation involved in the creation of our menu items. Anything fried, we bread it ourselves,” Taylor said.
Gulf Coast Restaurant Group is based in a 6,500-square-foot building in Gulfport where the partners and the administrative staff work. The building has a replica of a full Half Shell restaurant kitchen for training and menu development.
Employees in the commissary blend up Half Shell’s brand of spices and make 50-gallon batches of butter for charbroiled oysters and the oysters Orleans served at the restaurants. They also make other proprietary items.
The large freezer is mainly used for the 2,000 daily meals prepared by the company for Harrison County’s Adult Detention Center prisoners. There’s also an oyster processing facility to service the restaurants. They deliver oysters, seafood and commissary items to the restaurants two to three times per week in their own refrigerated trucks.
Taylor said he and his partners have no intention of franchising the brand. “We just want to continue the growth and development of the company internally and continue to provide career opportunities for our team.”