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Strong financial skills are the recipe for success

September 15, 2017

The story plays out over and over: Talented home-cooks mortgage their property, sign leases and work hard to get loans to open their first restaurant - and they promptly fail. And it happens to nine out of 10 new startups in the first year. You'd think people would pick up on the pattern, wouldn't you?

But the siren song of bubbling fryers, happy bar patrons, and pots full of grandma's muskrat goulash is hard to resist. I'll never forget those weekend nights when the music was loud and porterhouse steaks, onion straws, smoked pork sandwiches and racks of baby backs were flyin' out of the kitchen. Patrons were happy to wait 45 minutes for a table. And I was happy that they did!

But I also remember the weekend the electricity went out and $6,000 worth of food spoiled in the walk-in. Or the inventory that every now and then mysteriously walked out of the back door. Or the partially evolved county inspectors who couldn't wrap their poor feeble brains around the concept of a $15,000 wood smoker, or why we needed two. Mmmmm ... I wonder if there's more to this business of eating than meets the eye?

Norman Sugrue Sr. wasn't in the restaurant business, but his fascination with the hospitality industry wasn't lost on his sons Eric and Norman Jr. But instead of throwing dinner parties, the boys bussed tables, ran food and did the heavy lifting at various beach eateries including John McDonald's Garden Gourmet, Summer House and Grotto Pizza, to name a few. This is where I usually list the culinary schools, sous chef jobs and shaky deals that seem to follow teenage years spent in commercial kitchens. But that's not the case with the Sugrue brothers. Norman Jr. earned his degree in business, honing his skills in mortgage banking and real estate as his passion for all things food simmered on the back burner. In his words, "I worked for some successful - and not so successful - companies. So I learned what to do and what not to do."

Eric applied his degree in economics and finance to a friend's eatery in Knoxville, Tenn. His knack for money matters eventually landed him a managerial position at a 300-seat restaurant in Rockville, Md. It was to be a stepping stone to greater things.

Eric and Norman Jr. had their eyes on a Rehoboth eatery on the highway near the canal. But The Crab House needed extensive renovation to become what they envisioned. The boys pooled their resources, dad chipped in, and in early 1997, electricians, plumbers, carpenters - and both brothers - converted the decades-old crab joint into Big Fish Grill. And they did it in just three months. Of course the massive Big Fish Grill that now graces that spot bears little resemblance to the semi-shack that started it all. And the thing that fascinates me most about this place is the consistency of the service. The Sugrues wisely use the "runner system," where any available server picks up an order from the kitchen as soon as it's "up," fresh and still hot. If the assigned waitron is busy, the guest doesn't have to sit there quietly wasting away. When they talk about team service, it's not just a slogan on the menu. They actually do it. 

Success breeds success, and the Big Fish Restaurant Group now includes Summer House and Salt Air in downtown Rehoboth, two more Big Fish Grills in Wilmington and Glen Mills, Pa., Crab House on Coastal Highway, Bella Coast in Wilmington, and the recently acquired Washington Ale House and Mikimotos in Wilmington and Stingray in Rehoboth. Big Fish Wholesale Seafood Company supplies fresh product to over 150 accounts. Norman Jr. explains, “The seasonal market here at the beach means that smaller restaurants order their fish in small quantities. We’re nearby and have reliable sources, so we can quickly fulfill those needs with fresh product at fair prices.” 

Norman Sugrue Sr. is now a part of Rehoboth Beach history, but his sons took his advice to “never cut corners.” They work hard to combine dad’s guidance with fresh ingredients, financial savvy and proven techniques to cook up an unbeatable recipe for success. Don’t believe it? Try to get a seat at pretty much any BFRG restaurant on a Saturday night.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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