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Shrimp Market brings full-service style dishes to food courts

Betting on a vertically integrated business model and a streamlined store equipment package that showcases exhibition cooking, a newcomer to foodservice aims to make a former special-occasion food into a staple of shopping mall crowds.

Shrimp Market, which bills itself as the first quick-service restaurant chain to celebrate shrimp, specializes in fast, creative and cooked-to-order takes on the tasty crustacean. Some of its menu mainstays are Shrimp Carbonara, made with cavatappi pasta, bacon, tomatoes, peas and mushrooms in a roasted garlic cream sauce; Cadillac Shrimp Cocktail, with avocado, tomato and ceviche cocktail sauce; Crunchy Tempura Fried Shrimp with ponzu dipping sauce; and Grilled Shrimp Skewers served over steamed rice.

The mission is to serve an all-shrimp menu that rivals full-service restaurant fare in quality, according to Vanessa Abramowitz, president of the company, which is based in Aventura, Fla.

“Our first concern was not simply to bring shrimp to the food court, but to bring excellent shrimp dishes to the food court,” she said.

The first Shrimp Market unit debuted in the Aventura Mall food court last year. By the end of 2008, there will be nine units open in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, and plans call for a total of 14 by mid-2009, all company owned. According to Abramowitz, the average ticket time is about four minutes, the average check is between $8.50 and $9 per person, including a beverage, and the average annual unit volume is between $600,000 and $650,000.

Although consumers have always loved shrimp — it’s the country’s favorite seafood with Americans consuming a little more than four pounds per capita in 2007, according to the National Fisheries Institute — its relatively high price has traditionally kept it from broad use in the QSR world. That is changing, however, because of the growth of aquaculture in recent years.

“Shrimp was seen as a special-occasion item rather than an everyday alternative to chicken, which it has become,” said Abramowitz. “There is so much more production nowadays it is very affordable.”

For Shrimp Market, its tie to Cartagena Shrimp Co., a vertically integrated company based in Colombia that hatches, farms, processes and distributes shrimp, helps with affordability. As Cartagena’s first restaurant venture, Shrimp Market receives fully cooked, portion-controlled shrimp for cold salads and cocktails, partially cooked, portion-controlled shrimp that are quickly finished in a sauté pan for pasta or rice dishes, and butterflied and breaded frozen shrimp that go right into the fryer. The value-added shrimp reduces kitchen labor, speeds ticket times and bolsters quality.

“The product is processed and packaged for me, so I have total control,” Abramowitz noted.

For quick and efficient food execution, Shrimp Market has a relatively simple kitchen system designed for cooks who have some kitchen training, but not advanced culinary skills. The primary pieces are an eight-burner range, a flat grill and two or three fryers, all of which fit into a compact food court space of about 700 square feet.

At the front of the unit is a display case that merchandises cold, ready-to-eat shrimp salads, cocktails and wraps. Behind that, the main cooking pieces are set in a straight line. The cooks work facing the customers, sautéing shrimp and vegetables on the range to be served over pasta or rice, grilling shrimp skewers and deep-frying shrimp.

“It’s very important that people have complete visuals of the cooking line,” said Abramowitz. Shrimp Market is also using this equipment to test the breakfast daypart during the extended mall hours of the holiday season, serving cooked to-order omelets, eggs and pancakes.

Within easy reach under the cooking line are a refrigerator and freezer for prepped shrimp, vegetables and sauces. The setup includes two automatic rice cookers and a steam kettle for cooking pasta and sauces as well.

Also key to the kitchen effort are the fryers, which produce popular items like Coconut Shrimp, Crispy Fried Shrimp, Crunchy Tempura Fried Shrimp and Popcorn Shrimp. They are high-efficiency models that recover heat quickly when cold food is added and have onboard timers to ensure that the various breaded shrimp items, which need to be fried for different lengths of time, are done properly. Moreover, they are also self-filtering, which is important for maintaining clean oil for consistent high-quality frying.

“I am very, very big on making sure that the oil is filtered,” said Abramowitz.

“At the beginning, I was concerned that this concept would be too complicated and hard to execute,” Abramowitz said. “But so far, so good. We’re managing, and people love finding shrimp at the food court.”

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