If you're from Portland, you know about Jake's Famous Crawfish, the city's iconic, old-fashioned fish house, which could be the model for historic seafood restaurants in a category of decor that's not really antique, but certainly "Old Hometown." Dark wood, stained-glass chandeliers, oil paintings, starched linens. Nothing too sleek, weird or modern, just fresh seafood. Similar spots around the country: Sam's and Tadich Grill in San Francisco, Shaw's Crab House in Chicago. Growing up in Portland, Jake's was where we'd go for special dinners. Once, when (then) State Sen. Richard Neuberger and his wife, Maureen, came to dinner, my dad ran down to Jake's and bought a bag of crawfish.
Jake's was founded in 1892 and thrived, first as a sort of "gentlemen's club," then, as time went on, with early commitments to Oregon wine and the freshest fish available. It was taken over 80 years later by William McCormick, who hired Doug Schmick as GM. They opened the first McCormick & Schmick's in downtown Portland in 1979, and expanded nationwide over the next quarter century; 2 of its 90 units are in downtown Seattle, one in South Lake Union, one in Bellevue. Much of the expansion was funded by an IPO, and one of the investors was a Texas restaurant operator named Tillman Fertitta, who had taken over Landry's Seafood in the 1980s when there were only two stores. Today there are 21 Landry's, along with 30-some additional brands (Bubba Gump, Claim Jumper, Rainforest Cafe) all under the Landry's umbrella. Fertitta became the largest individual shareholder in McCormick & Schmick, and last year decided to buy it outright. When the M&S board resisted, Fertitta approached individual shareholders, and this week announced he had bought 88 percent of the shares.
McCormick & Schmick epitomizes a strong corporate commitment to fresh seafood; they print updated menus twice a day at the units in Seattle, but they haven't been immune to the recession. The company lost nearly $70 million in 2008 and $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2009, according to reports published in the Portland Business Journal. Even though it was Oregon's 18th largest publicly traded company, with annual sales of $300 million, management closed the flagship McCormick's in downtown Portland last year when they couldn't come to terms on a lease.
Now that he's absorbed the venerable Northwest institution into his private empire, Fertitta says he'll rebrand some of the McCormick & Schmick stores. Ironically, the McCormick & Schmick Harborside on South Lake Union has just undergone a complete renovation and rebranding. Fertitta wasted no time, in any event, making changes. Before the week was out, he fired co-founder McCormick and closed nine restaurants.
You can do what you want with most of them, Bubba, but you better not mess with Jake's. Ya hear?