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Boston’s famed fishmonger is back. And he has a job he wants to finish.
It was late in 2020, with the pandemic raging and restaurants reeling, when Roger Berkowitz sold Legal Sea Foods to a private equity-backed restaurant company.
It was a distressed sale and painful exit for Berkowitz, whose family opened its first restaurant in 1968, next door to its Legal Sea Foods market. The family built it into a $200 million-a-year business with 33 locations and 3,500 employees before COVID hit. As I reported at the time, after PPX Hospitality Group took over the restaurants, some vendors said they weren’t paid in full, even though Berkowitz set aside sufficient money for them.
Now, Berkowitz is taking the wraps off his comeback project: Roger’s Fish Co., an online purveyor of flash-frozen fish, live and cooked lobsters, and ready-to-heat meals for the let’s-eat-out-at-home set.
The company’s website went live on Monday with a lineup featuring “double” clam chowder (New England, of course), seafood-topped pizzas, and DIY lobster roll kits. Also on the menu: crab cakes, shellfish, filet mignon, and desserts, including Boston cream pie.
Berkowitz is angling to capitalize on the pandemic-fueled shift from full-service restaurants to in-home dining, the rapid acceptance of online food and meal kit ordering, and new technology that makes it possible to deliver restaurant-quality meals to customers’ kitchens.
With restaurant prices up 30 to 40 percent in the past couple of years and owners struggling with staff shortages, Berkowitz sees an opening: “I want to sell a better product than restaurants and at a better price point,” he said in an interview.
The question, of course, is whether the Berkowitz touch will work when the fare is frozen, delivered by truck — not a smiling server — and the Legal name isn’t on the box.
It’s a challenge he has long wanted to take on. “I started [Legal’s] mail-order catalog business back in the 1970s,” he said.
An early customer was the late actress Carol Channing, who had peculiar eating habits due to allergies, including bringing her own food to fancy restaurants in her purse.
“She had to have swordfish seven times a day, seven days a week,” Berkowitz said. “I was tasked with getting her the fish all over the country.”
He moved Legal’s catalog to the Internet when it was still “the Wild West,” and learned what worked in e-commerce and what didn’t. But the restaurant business left little time for online expansion. Before the pandemic, Berkowitz said, “I thought there is a really good business here. I wish I had more time.”
Berkowitz never let go of that e-commerce dream and the promise of a proprietary food-freezing process he developed at Legal, said Larry Moulter, a longtime friend.
”He believes in the technology. He believes online can deliver higher quality and better value,” said Moulter, a business consultant whose clients include restaurateurs (but not Roger’s Fish Co.).
As part of Legal’s sale to Boston-based PPX, Berkowitz held onto the rights to use the Legal name online and in some retail channels. At the time, the e-commerce business had sales of about $3 million to $5 million a year.
He initially planned to expand the existing operations but came to feel restrained because PPX had retained a say over what items he could sell and in which markets. He eventually chose to build a new business from the ground up.” I decided to make a clean break,” Berkowitz said. “I didn’t want to have to get permission for every new recipe we wanted to produce. I want to touch everything we do.”
How much has he invested in the new venture? “A lot,” is all Berkowitz wanted to say.
Berkowitz’s timing took PPX somewhat by surprise, said Kim Giguere-Lapine, the company’s chief marketing officer, but it moved quickly to launch “phase 1″ of a new online site called Legal Fish Market. A second phase will be rolled out sometime this summer with plans for more items, subscription offerings, and full meal kits, she said.
Roger’s Fish Co.’s prepared foods were designed from scratch in consultation with chefs such as multiple James Beard Award-nominee Stan Frankenthaler and Rick Katz, a legendary baker who founded Picco, a pizza and ice cream joint in the South End.
Everything is made and packaged at the company’s facility in Salem, N.H., where Berkowitz has deployed an enhanced version of his proprietary freezing process using nitrogen that takes minutes rather than the hours required by older systems.
A sampling of prices: $29 for two 6-ounce swordfish steaks, $36 for a quart of clam chowder, $40 for two four-ounce crab cakes, and $114 for a lobster and filet mignon meal. Two-day shipping is free on orders of $125 or more, and $35 on all others.
Berkowitz, 70, could easily have retired after selling Legal. But the idea never crossed his mind.
”I’d go out of my mind,” he said. “I have to have something on the fire.”
Or, these days, something on ice.