Successful restaurants depend on strong financial skills

September 27, 2011
Big Fish is a family affair: Brothers and sisters Jennifer Sugrue Burton, Norman Jr., Holly and Eric celebrate Holly’s college graduation. BY NORMAN SUGRUE JR. PHOTO

Owning a prosperous restaurant is a lot more than having a knack for entertaining your friends. So many talented home cooks mortgage their property, get loans from family members, sign leases, work hard, make the place pretty - and promptly fail. And it happens to nine out of 10 new start-ups. 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 beloved recipes 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 ribs were flyin’ out of the kitchen. Patrons were happy to wait 45 minutes for a table.

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 brains around the concept of a $15,000 wood smoker, or why we needed two. Could it be that 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 bused tables, ran food and did the heavy lifting at various beach eateries including 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 didn’t go unnoticed, and he soon landed 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 out on the highway. 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.

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 your order from the kitchen and gets it out to you hot and fresh.

If your assigned waitron is busy, you don’t have to sit there slowly wasting away. When they talk about team service, it’s not just a slogan printed on the menu. They actually do it.

Next door, Big Fish Market offers carry-out, fresh fish and a variety of prepared items. Of particular interest is the ciabatta bread. You know the old saying, “Never trust a skinny cook”? Well, that also applies to food columnists. And believe me, I am entirely trustworthy. Get the ciabatta.

Success breeds success, and the Big Fish Restaurant Group now includes Summer House Saloon in downtown Rehoboth and two more Big Fish Grills in Wilmington and Glen Mills, Pa. Big Fish Wholesale Seafood Company supplies fresh product to over 130 accounts including Rehoboth’s Cultured Pearl, Port in Dewey Beach, and Kindle, Half Full and Striper Bites in Lewes.

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.”

In June of this year, family patriarch Norman Sugrue Sr. passed away. His sons took his advice to never cut corners, combining Dad’s guidance with fresh ingredients, financial savvy and proven techniques to cook up an unbeatable recipe. Don’t believe it? Try to get a seat 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

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

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