Marcus Hill and Alan Springate are taking the “one step at a time” approach to their restaurant sensation The Cowfish, which serves burgers, sushi, and—in true Dr. Seuss form—burgushi. The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar opened its third location in December and is now looking ahead to its fourth.
You only need to chat with this duo for five minutes to understand they’re not the rushing type: They opened the first Cowfish in Charlotte, North Carolina, in November 2010 and waited until that unit was established and they understood it well before opening a second, in Raleigh, in April 2013. A restaurant at Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida, was the third, and the newest location, in Atlanta, was slated to open on April Fools’ Day.
“We have grown slowly, but the pace is right when you’re trying to keep the culture honest,” Hill says. “We are very cognizant of trying to re-create that same culture and leave a mark.” The difficulty, he says, is duplicating the culture and energy of The Cowfish when the founders are in a different city, which of course wasn’t an issue with the first location. It also takes time to fully develop the brand’s culture and energy in a restaurant management team, he adds.
“Our growth is about keeping the soul of this company in place,” concurs Springate. With this commitment, and because they want to be inside the restaurants fairly regularly, Hill and Springate aren’t setting their sights too far, geographically speaking.
They also plan to be very controlled in the markets where they do expand. “It makes the most sense for this concept to have a single unit in a metro market rather than peppering multiple locations into the same market,” Hill explains. “We’ve had plenty of opportunities in Charlotte, but the original location continues to thrive, and we don’t want to tinker with that. We prefer seeing how well this concept is received in different markets. The decision to go to Raleigh was to make sure we were not a one-hit wonder, and opening in Atlanta has clearly been a decision to go into a larger market.”
For any new concept, there’s also the challenge of standing out in a marketplace stuffed full of successful restaurants, but by dint of what it is, The Cowfish stands out already. It’s a burger and sushi joint, and the owners challenge anyone to find another restaurant that pivots around those two food choices.
“We decided we had to be different, so we merged sushi and burgers together,” says Springate, adding they didn’t want to take themselves too seriously. On offer, naturally, are those two foods, as well as the burgushi—you guessed it, a blend of the cow and the fish. It includes sushi made out of burger components such as a beef roll with cheese and pesto, and served in bento boxes with a mini burger, half a sushi roll, Thai cucumbers, edamame, and sweet potato fries.
Almost since day one, the division of what sells has been the same: About 45 percent of sales are sushi, 45 percent are burgers, and 10 percent are burgushi.
“The Cowfish is where we bring together burger eaters and sushi eaters, and it’s a place where they find harmony,” Springate says. “You rarely see tables with one or the other; there’s usually the mix.”
Of course, burgushi has the advantage that it’s a talking point. It’s why locals bring their out-of-town friends to The Cowfish, Hill says, “and you can’t find it anywhere else.”
The Cowfish also has its own vibe. It’s noisy—think concrete floors and high ceilings—but in a school dining hall kind of way. It’s fun, there’s a tank with an actual cowfish in each location, and recorded voices play in the bathrooms, speaking in what the owners describe as three languages: English, Indonesian, and “redneck.” Ironically, it’s also a step above casual dining, offering a menu that’s certainly not standard fare.
This atmosphere didn’t happen by accident. “We want people to remember the culture that is living and breathing in the staff,” Hill says. “We’re not blind to it; that culture piece is going to be the most difficult part to re-create as we grow. There’s always something a little quirky, a little off-center at The Cowfish.”
But the restaurant’s culture also had to be subtle enough to keep the food the focus, while remaining equally supportive of both cow and fish—basically neutral to both the sushi and the burgers. To carry this through in new locations, Springate and Hill move team members to new locations. In fact, more than half of the management team in Atlanta will transfer from existing locations.
“The business is becoming much more about systems and making sure everyone is following those systems to a T,” Hill says. “But at the same time, you can become so system-focused to be chainy and I don’t want that ‘c’ word attached to our company.” In fact, that would be antipathetic to everything they want The Cowfish to be.
Perhaps the most daring move for Hill and Springate has been the Universal CityWalk location, primarily because it’s a license-agreement business model.
“It’s a work-in-progress to have someone else running your baby, running your brand,” Springate says. “It’s always scary to give it up to someone else—but if we were going to give it up, I don’t think we could find a better partner.”
It was Universal who approached The Cowfish owners, and both companies have benefitted. “We’ve learned more about purchasing, menu development, menu design, and placement of menu items,” says Springate. “Universal has become a great ally for us.”