If you put 21 Chipotle stores next to each other, creating basically the size of a small shopping mall, that's how big San Pedro Fish Market is: the restaurant sits 3,000 eaters and drinkers in its 55,000 square feet of Pacific oceanfront.
If Sea World didn't exist, San Pedro Fish Market would be the most visited (non-subsidized) seaside attraction on the west cost. It's ranked by Time Magazine as one of the top ten most Instagrammed restaurants in the USA for three years running.
What started in 1955 as a small rough-and-tumble family's corner store selling fresh fish turned into a multi-generational seafood enterprise with national acclaim and deep, debtless pockets. The independently-owned restaurant pulls down $25 million in annual revenue and ships around 300,000 pounds of seafood a year. That's about as much as the average blue whale.
Chief executive Michael Ungaro is the grandson of the original founder Mackey Ungaro, who enlisted Michael's father and cousin, Tommy Amalfitano, to help run the shop when they were teenagers. The restaurant has been passed down through three generations. Today, Michael co-owns San Pedro Fish Market with other members of the Ungaro and Amalfitano families. As is typical with family members working closely together, the company culture is rife with drama and disagreements. When a group of Italian parents, siblings, cousins, in-laws, and friends cook seafood together in a kitchen, the spats can get saltier than the cuisine.
Which, in 2015, after the restaurant had appeared in several TV spots on the Food Network, Hungry Detectives, and Drink, Inc., caught the eye of a production company. Whenever a production company came to shoot at the restaurant, Michael said he made sure they were fed to the brim for free, even when it was 50 people. "If you have the opportunity, treat it like a godsend, and treat the production company like royalty," said Michael. "We fed them. Took care of them. We built our identity around being really easy to work with."
The production company approached Michael about pitching a series that involved shattering three Guinness world records all entailing lobster: most cooked in single vessel, most served on single platter, and most cooked over the course of eight hours.
"They said, 'If the rest of the family doesn't freeze up on camera, we'd like to follow you around as you break these records,'" said Michael, who accepted readily.
The production company shot a sizzle reel to pitch to the big networks, but it never caught on. However, due to the warmth of their relationship, they made an exception and allowed Michael and his family to use the sizzle reel. This sizzle reel would end up changing the trajectory of the restaurant forever.
At the same time, San Pedro Fish Market began packaging their seafood and creating retail products, "We approached big box grocers like Kroger and Costco and they had no idea who we were," said Michael. "Then we showed them the sizzle reel. They watched it and said, 'Here's my purchase order. Send me the other stuff.' 'We don't have anything else,' we said. But that showed us the power of storytelling through film."
With burgeoning social media accounts, Michael worked with a handful of TV show contacts to professionally produce more clips that showcased the family characters, the award-winning feasts, and the bustling restaurant. "We knew we were sticking out when people asked, 'What channel is this on?'"-- which gave him an ambitious idea.
World, Meet The Kings Of Fi$h
The next level: move beyond professionally produced video clips and produce a full-on show series. Reaching out to his network of production companies, he received back quotes of up to one million dollars for twenty episodes. "That works out to be $4k-$5k per minute," he said. "Which was outside our budget."
Eventually, a deal was struck for $250,000-$300,000 for twenty episodes and the lives of the Ungaro and Amalfitano families, in all of their disharmonious charm, became public for the world to see. On July 1st, 2016, the first episode of KINGS OF FI$H went live on Facebook.
"We had to decide: release all episodes all at once, or one a week? We ended up publishing one episode every Friday at 6:00 p.m., with a teaser on Thursday nights, through the end of August."
By Sunday, the show had 40k-70k views over the weekend. Friends would tag friends and say, "We need to go here."
And they did. Sales shot up 40% from the previous year. Retail revenue lifted. Other media companies approached the family and proposed TV distribution deals. But Michael was unconvinced that a traditional TV show was the way to go. "We'd lose control of the show."
A Deal With The Beast
In March 2017, Foodbeast, a popular food and drink blog commonly referred to as the "TMZ of food news," reached out to Michael and proposed a barter: If you give us the content, we'll give you the views. Foodbeast visited San Pedro Fish Market and ran a 30-second spot about what it considered the restaurant's crowned jewel, the "super tray" -- a massive customizable platter of assorted seafood including swordfish scallops, shrimp, lobster, calamari, mussels, and fried tilapia.
The Foodbeast piece exploded and seafood-loving millennials pilgrimaged from all over the country to experience the "World Famous Seafood Super Tray."
Over 35 million people viewed the promo and subscribed to the Kings of Fi$h web series to learn more. Michael remembered coming into work early on a Wednesday before opening at 8:00 a.m. and seeing a line of customers extending out the door and around the corner.
"We should be closed," he said to his family and turned to a guy standing in line, "What are you doing here?"
"I want a super tray," the man said. He said he had come from Sacramento--over 400 miles away--to order a super tray.
Later that day, the San Pedro police called. They had to shut down freeway access and re-route traffic, the officer stated.
Unlike the highways, the market's ample 55,000 square feet accommodated the surges in traffic well. Not only did the restaurant's business blossom, it also poured over into the Kings of Fi$h show. "It's a ripple effect," said Michael. Today, over 65 million people have viewed the show, it won a Webby Honoree award, and it just released its fifth season.
With a powerful marketing engine behind it, San Pedro Fish Market is packaging its 60-year story and seafood cuisine into new locations across the country. Earlier this month, the brand opened its second location in Palos Verdes, California, and has two more restaurants on the way this year. Michael envisions the brand making its way across the country over the next five, ten years.
How to Film Your Business and Create a Show as a Marketing Strategy
If you want to film your company culture and create a show like San Pedro Fish Market did with Kings of Fi$h, Michael recommends getting help. The production company, especially the editor, makes the magic happen cutting the right mix of scenes and interviews. Without outside help, his team would be dead in the water.
Don't film drama for drama's sake
When choosing a production company to partner with, Michael said to ask yourself the question, "Who do we trust to not make us look like idiots or Kardashians fighting? We don't want a show about who hates who." Rather, the show focuses on DIY seafood recipes, running a growing business, and good ole family shenanigans. "There's enough hijinx for entertainment," the co-owner said with a twinkle in his eye.
Ask yourself this question about your business
"Why would people want to watch you? Michael said that the key to a telling a good story is conflict. Every episode needs to have the classic elements of a story: rising action, anticipation, climax, and resolution. Does your company carry some sort of conflict that people would find interesting?
"But my company culture is too boring" is a poor excuse
You might be thinking that your company would be too stale, bland, or slow to put on camera. You're right, it could be. But, perhaps not: Talk with your employees and customers. Ask, "Why do you come here? What is it that you like most?" "When we looked at our competitors, we realized nobody had a 60-year history like ours," said Michael, and he capitalized on it.
Restaurants tend to be local businesses, but San Pedro Fish Market took a different approach to get the word out and today its story travels across the globe weekly. In a world where social video is booming, think about this question for your next marketing campaign: What story could your company tell?
If you do discover an interesting storyline in your company, turn your smartphone to landscape and start shooting. And consider Michael's advice if you decide to invest in the next level and produce your own company show: Be first, do it fast, and be persistent.
(Random tidbit: I asked Michael what his favorite seafood was and he said it was swordfish, the "filet mignon of the sea.")