The Untold Truth Of Bonefish Grill

This could have been the story of a restaurant called the Big Eyed Tuna. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the co-founders of Bonefish Grill, Chris Parker and Tim Curci, considered that name for their new approach to seafood restaurants. It was the late 1990s, and restaurants that specialized in seafood were usually decked out in nautical décor like fishing nets. Parker and Curci's idea, however, was for a place that was "polished casual" a phrase that they would copyright. Of course, it's always a calculated risk when someone goes against the trends, especially in the food industry, but in January 2000, Parker and Curci rolled the dice and opened their first Bonefish Grill in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Now, in case you're wondering, there is an animal known as the bonefish, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Granted, the name Bonefish Grill is more likely connected to the restaurant's fish skeleton logo, than the marine fish, but the bonefish is "admired by anglers" or people who fish with a hook and line. And funny enough, anglers are exactly who you'll meet at Bonefish Grill ... but not the kind you might expect.

Rather than catching fish, these white coat-clad servers who are called anglers provide guests with information like how a dish is prepared and where the fish is sourced, according to Bonefish Grill. It's a proactive, attention to detail approach to dining, which has helped Bonefish expand into a chain, win accolades, and endure some financial blows.

How Bonefish Grill became a chain restaurant

Although Chris Parker and Tim Curci had a different approach to seafood restaurants when they opened the first Bonefish Grill, their gamble paid off right away. According to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Chef, the "polished casual" restaurant that became known for a variety of fish being flown in fresh daily was a hit. It wasn't long before an additional two locations opened. And this was only the beginning for Bonefish.

Enter OSI Bloomin' Brands who, according to CIA Chef, became a majority stockholder of Bonefish. And if the name Bloomin' reminds you of a certain signature menu item at Outback Steakhouse, it should. As Bloomin' Brands explains on its website, it created the Australian-themed steakhouse, and like Parker and Curci did with Bonefish, opened the first Outback Steakhouse in Florida. Since then, Bloomin' Brands has expanded its restaurant portfolio to include such popular chains as Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Carrabba's Italian Grill, and, yes, Bonefish Grill. Currently, Bloomin' Brands has more than 1,450 locations globally, including the close to 200 Bonefish Grill restaurants in the U.S.

With Bonefish's success, Curci decided to do something that is not uncommon in business — move on to other ventures. As the CIA Chef explains, he sold whatever interest he had left in Bonefish in 2012 and established Fat Beet Farm. He also helped found the Italian restaurant, Noble Crust, and became a member of The Culinary Institute of America's Board of Trustees. 

Bonefish's cofounder died in boating accident

Although he was born in South Carolina and lived in Utah (according to Legacy) Bonefish's cofounder Chris Parker eventually moved to and found great success in Florida. There, he and his business partner Tim Curci opened their first Bonefish Grill, as reported in the Tampa Bay Times. Roughly four years after the opening, Parker died in a boating accident at age 37 in 2004.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Parker's speedboat was going more than 100 miles per hour when it was passing another boat and hit a wave. The combination of factors caused Parker's boat to flip. Rescue divers were unable to find Parker at the time of the accident, and it wasn't until eight days later that a couple of men found his body not far from the St. Petersburg Pier. Parker, who was identified via his fingerprints, sustained pelvic injuries, a broken arm, fractures to his skull, and a laceration on the forehead. The autopsy also found that Parker's blood-alcohol level was 0.07 at the time of the accident. In the state of Florida, the point at which a person is legally considered impaired is 0.08.

As Legacy notes, Parker was part of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, as well as involved in charity work. His obituary requested anyone wishing to send flowers instead make donations to the American Cancer Society and specifically for Lung Cancer Research.

A popular Bonefish dish had trademark issues

Certain restaurants become well-known for a signature dish. This holds true for everything from the McDonald's Big Mac to Red Lobster's Endless Shrimp. And Bonefish Grill is no different. Arguably one of its most popular menu items is its Bang Bang Shrimp. And if you have any doubts, Google how many copycat recipes are out there. While similar recipes are one thing, reported that Bonefish claimed trademark infringement when another restaurant used a similar name for one of its shrimp dishes.

The trouble began when Prime Time Steakhouse decided to participate in the annual Taste of Syracuse festival in 2015 by serving Prime's Bang Bang Shrimp, according to Bonefish, however, not only was a regular at the festival but was known for serving its Bang Bang Shrimp. In fact, the restaurant chain has trademarked the name "Bang Bang Shrimp." However, the owner of Prime Steak House, Dan Klamm, said the name "Bang Bang Shrimp" is commonly found in menus throughout the U.S.

So, what do you do if you're Bonefish and find other restaurants are using names like "Bang Bang Shrimp"? Well, Elizabeth Watts, the director of media and community relations for Bloomin' Brands, told that "a friendly phone call" can be enough to resolve such trademark issues. As for the Taste of Syracuse, reported that Bonefish was unable to attend the festival two years later in 2017. Prime Steak House, however, was there with its "bangin' shrimp."

Ingredients, spices, and even wood type are all crucial

Of course, success like the kind Bonefish Grill has enjoyed doesn't happen by accident. As its website explains, there are certain things that happen on a daily basis to help the restaurant achieve certain culinary results. But one key component that's easy to overlook is it only uses oakwood in its grills. In fact, the different restaurants' grills get a fresh supply of oakwood each morning. This is because the smoke from oakwood can add flavor to foods like fish that's complementary rather than overly intense, according to

Besides loading up the grills with fresh oakwood every day, another rule on Bonefish's website is fish must be hand-cut in-house every day. Seasoning is also a bit of an exact science at Bonefish. The company's website explains it as "simple as possible, but no simpler." In other words, Bonefish strives to hit that sweet spot between seasoning foods to the point that their natural flavors aren't overpowered and not seasoning them enough, so they taste bland. Additionally, the brand doesn't want how restaurants prepare foods to negatively change their texture. For this reason, Bonefish tests its recipes.

In addition to hand-cutting fish on-site, the Bonefish website explains that items like sauces, signature dressings, and soups are all crafted in-house. The same goes for desserts, which are created the same day they are served.

Bonefish has struggled to get millennials and gen-Xers in the door

Despite the number of Bonefish Grill locations in the U.S., the "polished casual" restaurant chain was not a hit with everyone. According to a 2015 article in the Tampa Bay Times, members of generation X, as well as millennials, had an "anti-chain" preference against places like Bonefish. As Darren Tristano, vice president of restaurant research firm Technomic, told the Tampa Bay Times, these demographics were more likely to patron two types of restaurants over a chain: locally owned and chef-inspired.

"This new 'foodie' segment, the millennials, doesn't see chains as adventuresome," Brian Connors told the Tampa Bay Times. Conners who is with the restaurant consulting firm Connors Davis Hospitality, explained that millennials in particular view chains as something for their parents or their grandparents. Unfortunately, Bonefish did the poorest of all the Bloomin' Brands' restaurants in terms of per-store gains for the first quarter of 2015. In addition, the seafood chain saw sales fall by 4.6% for the second quarter, according to the company's CEO Liz Smith.

So, was all of Bonefish's financial troubles because of the "anti-chain" movement? Well, Smith told the Tampa Bay Times that the real reason is the chain's menu had become too complex. Nevertheless, Bonefish teamed up with Uber for a special limited-time promotion that involved not only free Uber rides but also free Bang Bang Shrimp to try to bring in more millennials.

Bonefish closed 14 underperforming restaurants

Despite efforts to scale back its menu and draw in more millennials (according to the Tampa Bay Times), Bonefish Grill faced more difficulties. As reported in the Tampa Bay Times, sales continued to fall for the fourth quarter of 2015 by 5.4%. So, in the following year, Bloomin' Brands decided to close 14 Bonefish Grill locations.

Beyond members of generation X, as well as millennials, preferring, for example, locally-owned restaurants to chains, Darren Tristano, president of the food research firm Technomic, told the Tampa Bay Times that, "It doesn't help that Bonefish is a seafood restaurant, which has its ups and downs and isn't as broadly appealing as steaks or Italian." And while Malcolm Knapp, a restaurant economist in New York City, explained that "Bonefish is in a good spot where they can appeal to a higher demographic because the food quality is good" he also said, "With the shrinking size of the middle class, restaurants are seeing less frequency from consumers, who have a lot more choices." So, while fast food places continue to flourish, higher price point dining struggles.

Despite Bonefish's sales being down and 14 locations slated to close, Knapp told the Tampa Bay Times that "... it's not unusual for large chains to do some pruning like this periodically." In addition, Bonefish not only reduced its menu options, but also revamped the restaurants' interiors.

At Bonefish, mixologists craft drinks

James Bond is known for ordering his martinis "shaken, not stirred." So, there's an excellent chance that the super spy would be a fan of Bonefish Grill. After all, as explained on Bonefish's website, its mixologists shake their hand-crafted martinis at least 20 times. But beyond martinis and other classics, Bonefish has mixologists that give drinks a unique touch.

Before we go any further, it's important to understand that a mixologist is not the same thing as a bartender. As MasterClass explains, bartending is about making established drinks (including drinks that are unique to a particular establishment) and customer service. For a bartender, speed is essential. mixologists, on the other hand, come up with original cocktails. Now, this doesn't mean a mixologist never works behind the bar although it's usually in a managerial or head bartender capacity. Additionally, mixologists do make classic drinks, but when they do, they usually give them a personalized unique spin. They also have an understanding of the history of cocktails while being in the know about current cocktail trends.

Beyond employing mixologists, Bonefish also has Managing Partners who help select local wines and beers, according to Bonefish's website. This means no matter which Bonefish a person visits, they will have a selection of local drinks that are unique to their area.

Bonefish is helping restore coral reefs

Bonefish's cofounder, Chris Parker, was involved in charity work to help make a difference in his community, according to Legacy. So, perhaps it's fitting that in 2018, Bonefish partnered with the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy to help the coral reefs, according to Bloomin' Brands.

Although most of us focus on animals like sharks or whales when we think of marine life, our oceans are also the home of coral reefs, which as Bloomin' Brands explains, not only provide shelter for a quarter of all oceanic species, but also benefit humans directly in a number of ways. For example, during storms, coral reefs help to reduce the energy in breaking waves, making them less dangerous. They're also used in medications and can provide a livelihood for 500 million people. However, factors like overfishing and higher temperatures have caused as much as an 80% decrease in the coral reefs in areas of the Caribbean and Florida. So, Bonefish is supporting The Nature Conservancy's Plant a Million Corals Initiative with the goal of restoring the millionth coral by 2025.

In addition to helping fund coral nurseries in Florida and The Caribbean, The Conservancy says Bonefish will also assist in spreading the word about the importance of the coral reefs, as well as encouraging others to get involved. And according to Bloomin' Brands, Bonefish created a special Coral Reef Punch as a way to let its customers know about The Nature Conservancy's Plant a Million Corals Initiative.

Bonefish was recognized by TripAdvisor

It's become commonplace to have go-to websites if you want to find a restaurant and read how good (or not so good) it is. But for the travel site, TripAdvisor customer reviews of places like Bonefish weren't just passively archived on the site. Instead, the company decided at the end of 2018 to release its first Top Restaurant Chains in America for 2019 list — and Bonefish made the cut.

Although 30 restaurants, ranging from fast casual to fine dining were part of this ranking, TripAdvisor divided the restaurants into three different categories: Top 10 Small Chains with 10 to 50 locations, Top 10 Medium Chains with 51 to 100 locations, and Top 10 Large Chains with 101 or more locations. Bonefish Grill came in third for Top 10 Large Chains with Ruth's Chris Steak House coming in first and The Cheesecake Factory ranking second in that category.

Now in case, you're wondering, no, a single bad review isn't enough to sink a chain's chances of making the list. As TripAdvisor explains, they used an algorithm that took three things into consideration: 1) how recently locations of the chains were reviewed, 2) how many reviews the chains' restaurants received, and 3) the quality of the reviews. In addition, the algorithm only used reviews posted from December 1, 2017 through November 30, 2018.

Bonefish's brunch menu won an award

For Bonefish Grill, 2019 was a year of accolades. Yes, it made TripAdvisor's Top Restaurant Chains in America for 2019 list. But the chain also won the 2019 MenuMasters Award for Best Menu/Line Extension, according to Bloomin' Brands. These awards, which according to the MenuMasters website, were established in 1997 by Ventura Foods and Nation's Restaurant News, are given out annually to "menu R&D leaders" in the foodservice industry.

Now to be fair, this isn't the first time Bonefish has won a MenuMasters award. The MenuMasters website has lists of previous winners, including Bonefish winning in 2015 for Best Menu Revamp. This would have coincided with their plans to reduce their menu, as reported by Tampa Bay Times. But in 2019, the chain was honored not for removing items but incorporating new ones with classic favorites on its brunch menu, according to Bloomin Brands. Additions to the brunch menu included Seafood Johnny Cakes + Eggs, Saucy Shrimp + Grits, Crab Cake Rancheros, and the Triple-Decker "BLT" Club, which broke the rules by being a combination of bacon, lettuce, tomato, and either Ahi Tuna or lobster.

Besides new items, the Bonefish's brunch menu also featured classic favorites like the Oscar Omelet, Bang Bang Shrimp Eggs Benedict, the Half-Pound Wagyu Beef & Egg Burger, and Crème Brûlée French Toast, according to Bloomin' Brands. In addition, the menu included beverages like Blackberry Sangria, mimosas, the Cucumber Spa Spritz, and Bloody Marys.

Bonefish turned 20 in 2020

The food service industry can be highly competitive with no guarantee of success. So, when any restaurant (chain or otherwise) reaches a milestone, it's a noteworthy moment in that company's history. And for Bonefish Grill, that milestone happened at the beginning of 2020.

APNews ran a release about Bonefish celebrating its 20th anniversary in January of 2020. To commemorate the occasion, Bonefish created a special menu for January 23 that brought back past dishes alongside current favorites. Highlights included Fontina Pork Chop, Macadamia Nut Mahi-Mahi, Applewood Bacon Wrapped Scallops, Blackened Salmon Pasta, and Saucy Shrimp in a lime-tomato garlic sauce. In addition, the milestone menu featured drinks like the Parker's Margarita, in honor of the late Bonefish cofounder Chris Parker, as well as the Glowfish Martini (which was served with a bracelet that glows in the dark) and the Bonefish Martini.

Although 2020 began with a celebration for Bonefish, roughly a couple of months after it released the milestone menu, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bonefish's website explains how it conducts daily wellness checks and states "no one works sick." The chain also talks about how it's increased sanitation efforts, including "Frequent sanitizing of high-contact areas." And in all likelihood, the restaurant chain will need to continue to take these extra measures as it looks to the future.