For years, Roger Berkowitz has been the face of Legal Sea Foods, one of Boston’s oldest and best-known restaurant chains. The two brands — Roger and Legal — have become inseparable.
But could someone new end up being the owner?
Word that the investors in the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse chain are in talks with Legal prompted restaurant industry insiders to ponder that once-unthinkable question on Thursday. The COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy on sit-down restaurants, particularly ones such as Legal, where Berkowitz prides himself on the freshness of his meals.
“I was shocked,” said Steve DiFillippo, who runs the Davio’s restaurant group and considers Berkowitz a mentor, upon hearing the news.
“It just breaks my heart" if Berkowitz were to sell the group, said DiFillippo, who recalled similar emotions when Charlie Sarkis sold the Abe & Louie’s steakhouse to an out-of-town buyer in 2011. “I feel like we’re losing our town.”
For their part, neither Berkowitz, who is in his late 60s, nor PPX Hospitality Group, the Medford-based business that owns Smith & Wollensky, would say much about the negotiations.
“PPX Hospitality Brands and Legal Sea Foods are in discussions to create an exciting new venture and will issue a full update at the appropriate time," Berkowitz, Legal’s chief executive, said in a statement. PPX issued a similar statement.
The talks between PPX and Berkowitz were first reported on Tuesday by Boston magazine.
Irish investment firm Danu Partners established PPX as part of its purchase of three Boston-area Strega restaurants in January. Danu had already owned the bulk of the Smith & Wollensky restaurants, after purchasing them in 2016, and created PPX to be a vehicle to oversee its US restaurants and to handle acquisitions here.
With such limited details from both parties, it’s not yet clear whether these talks are aimed at an outright sale, a joint venture, or some other kind of partnership. Berkowitz considers himself to be an entrepreneur at heart, and has tinkered with different versions of the Legal model over the years. He even filed for a trademark in June for a label that showed icicles around the Legal fish logo, and the phrase: “Legal Sea Foods Nitro-Fresh/Frozen at its peak, for your convenience.”
Danu runs six Smith & Wollensky locations in the United States, including the two in Boston and Wellesley. The group is growing overseas through licensing agreements; so far, there are two Smith & Wollensky locations in London and Taiwan. The original Smith & Wollensky, in Manhattan, remains separately owned.
“PPX launched in January, about the worst time to launch a new restaurant group [but] they’re serious about coming into Boston and looking at the opportunities,” said Ed Doyle, president of hospitality consulting firm RealFood. “Legal [would put] them on the map as being a big player in the market.”
As with many restaurant operators that do not rely heavily on takeout or delivery orders, Berkowitz struggled mightily amid the pandemic-related shutdowns of dining rooms in the spring. (Restaurants in Massachusetts were allowed to reopen to diners in June.) Legal sued its insurance carrier in May in Boston federal court, in an effort to force it to honor Legal’s business interruption policy, saying the policy did not exclude damage caused by a virus. Boston lawyer Harry Manion, who represents Legal, said he is representing dozens of hospitality companies across the country in similar lawsuits against their insurers.
In its lawsuit, Legal said the losses incurred during the pandemic represented an “existential threat” to a family business “decades in the making,” as well as job losses for Legal’s employees, which numbered 3,100 in Massachusetts alone at the time, and the fishermen on whom Legal relies on for its inventory. (Legal is one of the biggest buyers of seafood in New England.)
Legal operates in 21 different locations across Massachusetts, according to its website. So far, it appears 15 locations have reopened in the state since the pandemic hit the East Coast in March, including two of its five spots at Logan Airport. Legal also runs single outposts in D.C., New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Of those, only the Rhode Island restaurant has reopened, according to its website.
The company reported in its insurance lawsuit that it had 34 locations at the start of the pandemic. As of Thursday, its website listed a total of 26 locations, including the five in Logan Airport.
Legal Sea Foods did not return a request for comment on whether any restaurants have permanently closed because of the pandemic.
Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said dining at a Legal restaurant is a quintessential experience for tourists coming to Massachusetts. She said she’s not worried about Legal disappearing from the scene. “I’m thinking they’re exploring their options to stay viable,” she said.
The restaurant chain was founded in 1950 when George Berkowitz, Roger’s father, opened a fish market in Inman Square in Cambridge. The company’s first restaurant opened in 1968, next to the fish market. Roger took over the family business in 1992. The succession didn’t go without a hitch: Roger’s brother, Marc, sued the family over the decision but eventually settled.
Since then, Roger Berkowitz has become a seemingly ever-present ambassador for the business, and for seafood in general, through his often-offbeat ad campaigns. “If it isn’t fresh, it isn’t Legal!" became not just a slogan, but also a business mantra.
News of a possible deal between Legal and PPX comes less than a week after Canton-based Dunkin' Brands confirmed it’s in talks to be acquired by an Atlanta restaurant holding company, the private equity-backed Inspire Brands.
Massachusetts Restaurant Association president Bob Luz said in the case of Legal, a transfer of ownership would at least keep the brand headquartered in Massachusetts, since PPX is based in Medford, even if the ownership is overseas.
“There’s some solace to say it still stays in Massachusetts,” he said. “Legal’s without Berkowitz is like McDonald’s without Ray Kroc.”
If Berkowitz does sell, it’s possible, if not likely, he would stay on with the new ownership, much like how Eliot Tatelman has stuck with Jordan’s Furniture long after it was sold to Berkshire Hathaway.
After all, it’s hard to separate Legal and Berkowitz in consumers' minds. Why start now?
DiFillippo, the chief executive of Davio’s, said he wishes Berkowitz had reached out to him first about seeking new investors. “A Boston guy should be owning it,” he said. “I would have loved to have had a shot at it.”
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