On paper, the task looks like a daunting one: a fresh, sustainable seafood place located in landlocked Lawrence.
But owners Vu "Ted" Nguyen and Jeff Lewis have done just that, debuting Angler's Seafood House, 1004 Mass., in a soft opening last month.
"This is probably one of the most challenging concepts I can think of doing in Lawrence," says Lewis, 24. "But we think we've got it set up, the infrastructure is strong enough, the concept is strong enough, the brand is strong enough and our understanding of business is strong enough to work."
Filling a void
Lewis and Nguyen are local men with longtime ties to the Lawrence restaurant scene.
Nguyen's family owns the Orient Vietnamese Restaurant, next door at 1006 Mass., and has owned two restaurants on the West Coast. He met Lewis, a 2008 graduate of Kansas University, while Lewis was working on a branding project for the 23rd Street Brewery, in which Nguyen, 42, had a stake. Lewis had worked in Lawrence restaurants for seven years while pursuing a degree in industrial design.
They became friends and began talking about the possibility of working together on a fresh seafood restaurant.
"(We) explored it, researched it, became knowledgeable on the subject and kind of came upon the movement of sustainable seafood and realized how really important it is and the whole concept of conservation of seafood and prolong it for future generations," Lewis says. "And we're not trying to force it on people. Just kind of making it public knowledge."
What the restaurant's philosophy means for the average customer might be most easily demonstrated in what Angler's does not carry. Sustainability means avoiding varieties that are overfished as well as trying to stay true to the fish's wild and seasonal patterns.
"Orange roughy is extremely overfished. Chilean sea bass, swordfish, all kinds of things. Farmed salmon, we don't carry. And that's the biggest question we get from people, 'Do you carry salmon?'" Lewis says. "We can only use wild caught salmon, and that's such a seasonal thing."
The dance of freshness
Because of its goal of keeping a sustainable, fresh product and its commitment to using as many locally grown ingredients as possible, it took 10 months to plan Angler's menu.
"It's researching out vendors, then researching out the seasons of the fish, so that we don't end up short-changing ourselves to where we have all these fabulous fish dishes and then four months later we can't serve any of it because it's out of season," Lewis says. "Life would be a lot easier if we had frozen seafood."
The delicate dance between seasonality and an emphasis on freshness means the restaurant requires daily deliveries of seafood. That works just fine with the restaurant's philosophy in motion.
"It's gone within a day and a half or two days. That's how we keep it fresh. That's the key. Because when it's caught, from the boat, they come in and they hold it for 24 hours, they have to chill it down for 24 hours. Then it's shipped out, it's shipped out to us," Nguyen says. "So within 48 hours of being caught, at the longest, it is here at the restaurant. We're talking three days, max three and a half days, that fish has been caught and has been eaten."
Virtues of being local
In fact, the key word in the restaurant is "fast." From the lobsters that are overnighted from Maine, to the turnaround for fish as it comes in, to the changes that Lewis can make to the menu if necessary - it is all fast.
"I do all the in-house design stuff," Lewis says. "So if we need to redo the menu because something happened with the seasonal fluctuation with the fish markets, in a day we can change the entire menu around. That's what nice about not being a corporate-structured place. We don't have to call the corporate office and get OK'd by six levels of bureaucracy. 'Hey, Ted, what do you think? OK, I'll change it.'"
That may seem unusual, but Nguyen explains it's all about making sure Angler's customers are happy.
"We want to keep the quality and everything the same as the first day we opened," he says. "There have been instances where we do get fresh fish in but it's not to our standard, and we refuse it, and that means then that it's not on the menu. The way we look at it is, we would rather have a customer upset it's not there than a customer upset because it's that quality."
Nguyen says eventually he'd like to have a first-hand role in the quality of Angler's fish. A professional angler on the side, he hopes to take Lewis on a trip in the spring to catch tuna for the restaurant. But getting away may pose a challenge for the men, who, through 15-hour days make sure they are as hands-on as owners can be. Lewis works a shift in the kitchen every day, Nguyen monitors the business side of things and both have had a hand in everything from picking the paint colors to explaining to customers what sustainability means.
And they hope all that work will pay off with happy customers who may have learned a thing or two about commercial fishing while enjoying fresh scallops, lobster or mahi-mahi.
Says Nguyen, simply, "The way we look at it is come here and eat and you make a difference and you don't even have to do anything."