Toss together sushi and burgers, season, and pour into a greased pan.
What do you get? A crazy idea; a silly concept; a highly successful restaurant? All of these in fact and the result is The Cowfish, a sushi and burger bar in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We decided we had to be different so we merged sushi and burgers together,” says Alan Springate, who co-owns the restaurant along with his business partner Marcus Hall. “We wanted to not take ourselves too seriously.”
The pair opened The Cowfish last November, playing on their joint expertise, offering burgers, sushi and a blend of the two, ‘burgushi.’ The latter includes sushi made out of burger components such as a beef roll with cheese and pesto, and bento boxes with a mini burger, half a sushi roll, Thai cucumbers, edamame and sweet potato fries.
Sales are approximately half sushi, half burgers, with burgushi accounting for around 10 percent of sales.“The burgushi menu items have a very loyal and very vocal group of fans,” Springate says.
The two business partners have run a sushi restaurant, eeZ, in a Charlotte suburb for six years and Springate also operated a burger concept in the city for two years but closed it to open The Cowfish in its place.
Before the restaurant launched, Springate and Hill ran focus groups to discover consumers’ thoughts on their unusual idea.
“About 50 percent looked at us like we were fools. The other half said that’s perfect—my wife loves sushi, I love burgers,” points out Hill. “Some in the focus group said no way; others said that’s crazy; others said what a great idea. Our goal was if we could get them in one time, they’d come back.”
The focus groups were a great idea, says Hill. “It’s money well spent. Listen to the guest, listen to the guest, listen to the guest.”
Springate and Hill also tested menu items extensively in the focus groups and found the feedback on price point to be invaluable.
“If there was a menu item we loved but it wasn’t well received in the focus groups, we never hesitated to remove it from the menu,” Springate says. “This is something we continue to do on an ongoing basis.”
Optimistic from the focus groups, yet still somewhat concerned that the concept was “too weird, too far out there, that we’d crash and burn,” the partners opened The Cowfish.
The restaurant is now so successful that guests have to book weeks in advance for weekend meals and regulars are known as “Cowfish Junkies.” Sales are double the forecasts for this point, one year in.
Interest in The Cowfish starts through curiosity, Hill believes, but says that once diners come in and enjoy the food, they come back.
“We think the popularity of The Cowfish can be attributed to the fact that we are offering something completely different, in terms of food, setting and concept, from any other restaurant,” Springate says.
The partners have relied mostly on grassroots marketing. They give customers free appetizer offers so they can either return or pass them on to friends, and send out a newsletter once a month to the Cowfish Junkies with a clippable offer. “This keeps us in touch and it keeps [customers] updated,” Hill explains.
“Because of the uniqueness of The Cowfish you don’t have to scream it very loud. I would rather spend my marketing and advertising dollars giving people something that gets them in the door than do traditional marketing,” Hill explains.
But The Cowfish also goes the extra mile to keep its customers happy.
“If someone is not satisfied and they leave, we run through the parking lot to refund their money,” Hill says. It’s a culture I pray we can continue to keep alive.”
And Springate adds: “We work very hard to hire a very hungry team. We want everyone to have that fire, that drive. All the managers we look for have a true understanding of hospitality and guest mentality.”
Springate and Hill are ready to expand but not too quickly. “You want to strike while the iron is hot but you want to go slow and steady,” Hill points out.
So they’ll open one restaurant at a time, with the first likely opening in Raleigh, North Carolina, 170 miles away. This city is ideal because of its proximity to Charlotte, which will help in operations, Springate says, and the city is similar to Charlotte in feel.
They’d like to open this second restaurant within the next year but will evaluate every opening with a ‘one step at a time’ strategy.
“We know trends only last so long. So we need to stay fresh, stay new, not get boring, and not stop creating,” Hill says. “And as long as we all have creative juice, we’ll keep going.”