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California Fish Grill Eyes East Coast Expansion

California Fish Grill has up to 11 new restaurants in the works for 2024, and will end the year having doubled its total number of locations in the last five years, as it expands to markets outside California.

Opening 26 new locations since 2020, the Newport Beach-based fast-casual seafood chain ended 2023 with 55 stores, including nine spots in Orange County. At the end of 2019, California Fish Grill operated 29 stores.

The restaurants, spanning 2,500 square feet on average, are in California, Phoenix and Las Vegas. The latter two were first-time markets for the restaurant chain in the last few years.
California Fish Grill’s growth has come under the watch of Chief Executive Bob Holden, who joined the chain in 2014, when it counted eight restaurants.

The chain is eyeing expansion in East Coast markets such as Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. in the coming years.

“I think the seafood concept will be successful on the East Coast,” Holden told the Business Journal. “Then we will be able to scale our business more successfully across the United States.”

All restaurant locations for California Fish Grill are company-owned. It ranked No. 18 among Orange County-based restaurant chains with systemwide sales of $125 million for the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2022, according to Business Journal data.

Holden projected 2023 sales to close around $135 million.

Fishing Improvements

A big part of California Fish Grill’s business model is to ensure serving sustainable seafood, and the return of its mahi mahi dishes after two years off the menu has highlighted the chain’s priority of finding the right suppliers.

The management team removed the fish from its restaurant offerings when they discovered that the supplier at the time had not met responsible sourcing standards.

California Fish Grill joined the Seafood Watch program of its existing partner, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to find a new source for mahi mahi, which proved to be difficult, according to Holden.

The aquarium helped the restaurant chain identify fisheries in Costa Rica and Peru known as fishery improvement projects (FIPS) that used better fishing practices and met the Seafood Watch program’s qualifications. These businesses are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as well.

The restaurant also sends team members on-site to the suppliers to help support and keep track of their work. The category of sustainable mahi mahi will have an impact on the seafood industry, according to Chief Marketing Officer Mark Hardison who joined the team in September.

“We’re able to influence overall sustainability,” Hardison said.

“There’s not an endless amount of seafood,” Holden added.

He noted that when it comes to value, the food put on the plate is just as important as the price.

“The sustainability has been even more challenging than the pricing,” Holden said. “And we won’t give that up. It’s not an easy task.”

Marketing Riches

As the first marketing officer for California Fish Grill, Hardison plans to revisit the company’s brand strategy to keep in line with its most recent growth.

“I will be laying the foundation for how we show up in the market and continue to enhance the strategy,” Hardison said.

A way to do this will be through improving the restaurant’s customer relationship management.

“We have a loyal database of customers, and there’s an opportunity to enhance personalized offers and our communication,” Hardison said.

The executive spent the last 22 years at Costa Mesa’s El Pollo Loco Inc. (Nasdaq: LOCO) in marketing and operations roles and worked for CKE Restaurants Inc., operator of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, before that.

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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