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THE WAY I WORK

The Way I Work: Roger Berkowitz

"People who want me to do something have to remind me repeatedly. It's management by being nagged."
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Call him the Omega-3 Man. Roger Berkowitz has fish oil in his blood after a lifetime working at Legal Sea Foods, the Boston-based family business he has run for 16 years. Legal was spawned in 1950, when the CEO's father opened a fish market next to his father's grocery store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today it is a $215 million, 4,000-employee company, with 32 restaurants stretching from Boston to Boca Raton, Florida. To keep this ichthyoid empire afloat, Berkowitz, 56, spends his days tracking salmon runs, strategizing with local fishermen over proposed catch limits, and soliciting customer critiques of the lobster rolls at his sleek restaurants. Often, you'll find him walking the frosty rooms of Legal's cavernous fish-processing plant, checking out the daily catch.

As Told to Leigh Buchanan

In the 1980s, I attended an executive education class at Harvard Business School taught by this great curmudgeonly marketing guy, Marty Marshall. One day Marty corners me in front of the class and says, "Berkowitz, what business are you in?" I say, "I'm in the restaurant business." He says, "Oh, you think so, huh? I want you to do an analysis of your company for next semester." I go back and start examining Legal, past, present, and future. I look at how we source our products -- how we handle and market them. When I hand in the paper, Marty waves it in front of my face and says, "Berkowitz, what business are you in?" I say, "I'm in the fish business." He says, "Good; you did your homework!" That was the single most important lesson I've learned. I'm in the fish business. Every major decision I've made since comes out of that.

The first thing I do in the morning is retreat to my den and meditate. I meditate twice a day for 20 minutes, closing my eyes, clearing my mind, and repeating my mantra until I'm in a semiconscious state. Sometimes, I'm wrestling with an issue before meditation, and afterward the answer is suddenly clear. Next, I make my first cup of coffee. There's a new report from the nutrition roundtable at the Harvard School of Public Health saying coffee is a deterrent for diabetes and Parkinson's. I sit on the roundtable, so I get early notification of all kinds of great research. Some of it, like studies on trans fats, I apply right away in the restaurants. The study on coffee helps me justify my own three cups a day.

Four days a week, I try to hit the gym before starting work or at least put in some miles on my office treadmill. I'm the public face of a company that touts healthful eating, so I have to be healthy: Exercise isn't a luxury. Once a week I do a Bikram yoga class -- 90 minutes sweating in a 105-degree room with 40 percent humidity. I emerge with my mind sharp and my body ready for a three-hour nap.

If I forget I'm in the fish business, my nose reminds me. The smell doesn't penetrate my office, but you can't escape it in the halls. Four years ago, we moved out to a jetty that Boston was developing for the seafood industry. Before the move, our old building was in a neighborhood, and the residents were thrilled to see the back of us. It wasn't the fish that bothered them so much as the trucks. And the chowder. I guess coffee and bacon are more appetizing morning smells than thousands of pounds of cooking onions.

Several days a week, I perform spot inspections at the plant where we process the fish, make chowder and desserts, and package and ship products. It's 35,000 square feet on the first floor of our building. The space is refrigerated, so I put on a fleece jacket before heading downstairs. I stroll around, talk to people, and feel the fish. I'll pick up a piece and slide my hands along the sides to assess its butter -- if it feels wet and silky. I'll press my thumb and forefinger into the flesh along the backbone, checking for rigor. A fresh fish will be stiff, not floppy. I'll inspect the eyes, which should glisten and practically bulge. And I'll peer into the gullet cavity where the gills have been removed, looking for bright red blood.

While I'm on the first floor, I'll also swing by the lab. We test everything that comes into the building -- 120 tons of fish a week. Steve Martinello, our registered sanitarian, will show me reports on mercury levels in tuna and swordfish and bacterial counts in shellfish. We send copies of those results to the diggers who sell us shellfish, and also to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Consequently, the diggers are very eager to provide us the best product. Steve also shows me health reports on all the restaurants, which he personally inspects. He's like the vice squad.

Most meetings take place around the conference table in my office. It's private, and there's an ocean view. I like to get heavy-duty meetings out of the way Monday; that sets the stage for the rest of the week. My vice presidents file in at around 8, and we start with what we call Food I, which is a postmortem of the previous week. We experiment a lot with promotions, menu items, service. For example, whether service improves when you assign a team rather than one waitperson to a table. We'll compare the results across all the restaurants, extract lessons, and apply them to plans for the coming week. Food I is followed immediately by Food II, where we discuss supply. We get daily information from fishermen. They may say, "We're starting to see soft-shell crabs. Halibut are abundant. Lobsters are looking scarce." Then we decide how to respond. Maybe we'll feature the crab until the run gets heavier and then move it to the regular menu, promote halibut instead of trout, and raise prices on our lobster entrées.

During the day, I'll wander around the cubicles, checking in with folks, or they'll come talk to me in my office. People who want me to do something know they'll probably have to remind me repeatedly before guilt kicks in and I do it. It's management by being nagged.

I'm a little fanatical about sanitation. I wash my hands maybe a dozen times a day, and I have hand sanitizers all over the building. Purell should make me its spokesperson. I also keep Zicam -- that's a homeopathic zinc gel -- in a desk drawer. If you're feeling a little stuffy, come see me: Eighty percent of the time Zicam will nip it in the bud. If you've already got a cold, you're banned from the office. Don't give it to me, and don't give it to your colleagues.

It's easy to catch colds around here, because there's a 30- to 40-degree difference between the temperature in the plant and in the rest of the building. To boost my immune system, I drink "green lemonade," which our executive chef, Rich Vellante, whips up for both of us. It's made from kale, ginger, lemons, and apples. He keeps it in the refrigerator in our test kitchen, and every few days I drop by for a glass. It's great for the digestion, too.

The test kitchen is also where I go to taste recipes in progress. I'll tell Rich if I think we need to punch up the spice or try a lemon caper sauce instead of aioli. Sometimes, I'll get behind the counter and try tweaking a recipe myself. I'm not a chef, but I formed strong opinions about food growing up -- most of them a reaction to my mother's cooking. My father would bring home a nice piece of plain fish, and she would lay it on aluminum foil, pour milk over it, and burn it. I ate ketchup with everything to mask the taste. I still keep a bottle in my office and use it on 50 percent of my food, just from habit.

If I don't hit the road every week to 10 days, I go stir-crazy. Often, I'm scouting real estate. We open only a few restaurants annually, but I like to be two years out identifying locations. I visit at least 50 potential sites a year, and I've done reconnaissance on hundreds in New York City. Occasionally, I travel overseas to vet potential suppliers. We're sourcing shrimp from Vietnam and Thailand, never China, but whenever you go international, there's risk. I insist on personally touring factories and meeting with owners. I'm listening for details: Do they talk about temperature and purity? People who view fish as a commodity mostly talk about developing a personal relationship. I want to hear about the product first.

I spend a lot of time in the restaurants. Most days when I'm in town, I try to visit at least one or two. I'll sit at the bar and strike up a conversation with customers about the food, the wine, the service. I may be in the fish business, but I have a retail mantra: ROG. That stands for return of the guest. We want people to come back, and talking to seven or eight customers a week is a great way to learn what brings them in and what turns them off.

My best information comes from people on the frontlines: the wait staff and bartenders and line cooks. But it's hard to talk to them while they're working, and they may feel uncomfortable opening up in front of their managers. So eight years ago I created the president's advisory council, or PAC. Every quarter the council, comprising two hourly workers from each restaurant, meets with me here at headquarters. I lay out the state of the business, then break the council into four groups and pose a question. How can we improve training or benefits? How can we make the restaurants more kid-friendly? The groups hash it out for 20 minutes among themselves. Then they give their presentations, and we discuss it together. We close with a forum in which anyone can talk about anything. These guys have great ideas, and I act on most of them. Recently, they suggested we relocate not only veteran managers to restaurants launching in new cities, but also bartenders, waiters, and hostesses, who can pollinate the outposts with our culture. We're trying that with our first Atlanta restaurant, which opens this month. A few years ago, I started a similar PAC meeting for restaurant management staff. They also have great ideas but tend to be more cheerful about the status quo.

I used to regularly go to the pier where fish auctions are held in Gloucester, a port about 30 miles north of here. My son Matthew handles that these days. (My other son, Scott, is also in the business.) I still go to Gloucester sometimes to confer with fishermen about legal issues. Congress has drafted some pretty draconian laws limiting their days at sea and how much and what they can catch. The laws are designed to sustain the fish population at all costs, and they fall disproportionately on day boats. They go out for a few hours at a time and don't drag the ocean bottom or take huge hauls. The day boats are our main suppliers: Their fate affects Legal's fate and also the fate of the industry. So we talk about how proposed and existing laws are affecting their livelihoods. Then when I'm in Washington, I'll meet with a representative, usually Barney Frank, to argue our cause.

I'm frequently at the restaurants in the evening. Sometimes, I'll meet with staff there after closing, which gets me home past 11. If I'm home at a sane hour, my wife and I go out for a light supper, either at a Legal or another restaurant. If it's another restaurant and they do something great with food or service, I'll shoot an e-mail about it to myself or to someone on staff. If the food or the service is bad, I never complain. I just sit back and enjoy it.

Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large.

Last updated: Jul 1, 2008




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