During the height of the pandemic, many experts were worried that fine dining would not survive or would be forever changed. With dining rooms shuttered for months at a time, many restaurants had to close and others had to get creative to keep their heads above water. But Ocean Prime — the 17-unit seafood and steak chain from Cameron Mitchell Restaurants — not only did very well during the peak of COVID-19, but also flourished coming out of it in 2022.
According to NRN’s Top 500 data in partnership with Datassential, Ocean Prime’s sales grew 28.5% and its estimated sales per unit grew 22.1% from 2021 to 2022. The recipe for success was a combination of amplified consumer demand coming out of nearly two years of sitting at home getting takeout, increased menu prices to keep up with inflation, and pivoting toward a younger customer demographic.
“When the pandemic first hit, we were worried because we thought Ocean Prime would be the albatross around our neck … we thought there would be no business when we reopened,” said Cameron Mitchell, founder and CEO. “But the opposite happened — Ocean Prime was our lifeline and savior during the pandemic … it was a pleasant surprise that continued into 2022. … There was a surge of people wanting to get out and celebrate, so we had a terrific year.”
Like many restaurants in 2022, Ocean Prime raised prices by about 7-8%, which helped to boost the average check. But unlike other restaurants, the brand did not choose to shrink the menu size. In fact, in order to appeal to new demographics, Ocean Prime grew its offerings in the post-COVID era to include trending items like wagyu steak, broader sushi options, and a more robust cocktail and wine program. The downside is that smaller menus are easier to execute with less overhead and fewer labor costs, but in the long-run, Mitchell said, the upsides of expanding Ocean Prime’s offerings greatly outweighed the downsides.
“We’re always pushing the brand, the menu offerings and our service style,” he said. “The brand is even more sophisticated than it was in 2019. … I think that’s resonating with our guests and they’ll appreciate some of the enhancements we’ve done.”
As the world of fine dining continues to evolve, higher-end restaurants need to keep up with the times to make sure they are appealing to younger demographics. Mitchell said staying relevant to millennials and Gen Z involves offering more creative fare, expanding menu programs like sushi (with the recent addition of new sashimi items) and introducing a more laidback atmosphere despite the heftier price tag of a restaurant like Ocean Prime. The company has even thought about ditching neckties as part of servers’ uniforms.
“As people get older, they want that finer dining and that elevated experience, but they don't want the stuffiness that comes with it,” Mitchell said. “They want the premium wines, high-end steaks and seafood and excellent execution. … Casual dining can be replaced with fast-casual or quick-service, but there are not a whole lot of substitutes out there for a great fine-dining experience in America.”
Two of the most crucial aspects of the company’s continued success and sales growth are not being afraid to evolve the experience at Ocean Prime and refining the menu to appeal to newer tastes and trends. As for physical growth, however, it’s a much slower process than expanding the footprint of a limited-service restaurant. From 2021 to 2022, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants opened just one Ocean Prime location.
The brand will also be opening its first Las Vegas location after 10 years of searching for the best spot in Sin City. Moving forward, Mitchell said that he wants to expand to the Houston market but that could similarly take a long time. Ocean Prime’s growth trajectory might be cautious and selective, but the team is also very optimistic about a bright future. Ocean Prime could even expand to smaller, emerging markets like Tulsa, Okla., or Birmingham, Ala., Mitchell said, though that would be further into the future.
“We’re broadening the guest appeal by offering lighter and healthier options alongside the classic steak and potatoes,” he said. “There are still plenty of people out there who want that classic steakhouse experience, but it’s important to have other options to appeal to other types of customers while still being in the same vein of fine dining experience.”
Ocean Prime moved up 23 spots in the Top 500, from 210 in 2021 to 187 in 2022 — and it only has 17 locations.
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]