Galveston Seafood Company finds a way to weather the headwinds of the pandemic
When Galveston Seafood Company opened in early March 2020, who knew a week from now a pandemic would hit like a rogue wave.
His home base was the iconic Towne Crier Steakhouse, which opened in 1966 at 818 E. Highway 80 and closed in 2016.
As indoor dining has ceased statewide, Robert Ochoa Sr. and his son, Robert Ochoa Jr., have ditched their original business plan to showcase quality seafood reminiscent of the upbringing of Robert Sr. in Galveston.
“I instantly went to a survival menu,” said Robert Ochoa Sr.
out of the storm
The plan quickly changed.
“I had it made and printed that night and we implemented it the next day where we would have meatloaf and some staples which we prepared very well.”
The menu has been reduced to dishes that have retained their quality for take-out orders.
A seafood restaurant in the old German-style building with wooden beams inside the loft isn’t aesthetically over the top for Ochoa.
“I always called it the capsized ship,” Ochoa said. “When you look up, it looks like a capsized boat.”
Far from capsizing, Galveston Seafood Company has adapted to a new pandemic normal, returned to a menu dominated by fresh seafood and mounted an aggressive social media campaign.
Not only has the restaurant stayed afloat, it has found a new port of call.
A second location at 4534 Buffalo Gap Road opened November 1.
It’s tucked away at the western end of a strip mall, in a spot previously occupied by the Don Luis Café and years ago the Italian restaurant Spano.
At the new location, extensive renovations to the dining room include removing columns, replacing lighting and painting the walls white to brighten the atmosphere. Large black-and-white photos of Galveston’s landmarks and waterways convey the coastal vibe. The kitchen and bathrooms have also been renovated, Ochoa said.
A taste of home
Ochoa has been a businessman since 1983, but this is his first restaurant, he said.
“I’m in tech more than anything. I’ve been in tech since 1997,” Ochoa said.
Although he worked primarily in the floral business, technical training is instrumental in Ochoa’s management of restaurant operations. He credits his wife, Elizabeth, with the impetus for the new venture.
“She thought there should be better seafood deals in town,” Ochoa said.
This was consistent with his younger days when he joined friends to catch shrimp, crabs and fish and harvested oysters for a bonfire and a feast on the beach. He said he also worked in the 1970s at Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, a Galveston landmark known for its fresh, hand-prepared seafood and white tablecloth service.
Zestier seafood then came into his life, courtesy of his previous wife and the mother of Robert Jr., a native of Oakdale, Louisiana.
“That’s how I first learned to cook Cajun food and real Southern food,” Ochoa said.
He honed his cooking skills by watching shows with Graham Kerr (“The Galloping Gourmet”), Julia Childs and Justin Wilson, known for his Cajun-inspired cooking.
“When my son was born, I took him fishing and crabbing and we did that for decades. We cooked what we caught,” he said.
Before the restaurant opened, Robert Jr. worked for a friend buying shrimp directly from the boats and selling the product to HEB and other outlets, Ochoa said.
“He then had his own commercial fishing boat to catch red snapper,” Ochoa said of his son, who also owned a construction and cleaning business.
Galveston Seafood Company’s food is personal to Ochoa, more like cooking at home.
“Some of what we have you won’t taste anywhere else,” Ochoa said.
To rate her restaurant’s food, Ochoa ate at restaurants on her way to Florida on a trip four months ago. These included “some of the greatest restaurants known for their food,” he said.
He said he wanted to know where his food was.
“I would put our top 15 against their top 15, and we would beat them,” Ochoa said. “I had no idea what we were up there, because when you grow up around seafood, you just don’t think about it.”
Dishes other than seafood are also on the menu, and not just as an afterthought.
“We save the chicken fried steak staples and other stuff so people who don’t want seafood can eat the other stuff,” Ochoa said.
The rib eye steaks are hand cut and the chicken fried steak is made with wagyu beef, Ochoa said.
“I’m not a chicken fried steak person, but people who are, they love it,” he said.
And he hopes that people who think they don’t like seafood will give their dishes a chance.
“They’ve never tasted very good seafood, and they’ve never given their palates a chance to see what kind of seafood they like and don’t like. Maybe they would like a pure-tasting pan-fried fish because most people don’t like a fishy taste,” Ochoa said.
The menu continues to be a few letter-sized stapled blank pages, allowing for quick changes.
“We always try to refine what we do because we never want to be like a one-trick pony,” Ochoa said.
Flexibility allows them to capitalize on product availability, test new recipes and adapt to customer behavior.
“We started with traditional, regular, daily menu items to get people to taste our catfish, this and that so they could see the difference between what they think is good catfish and what that it really tastes like,” Ochoa said.
Then, “we started introducing better dishes with scallops and different kinds of sauces and this and that,” he said.
Changes may also relate to their protein supply. Alligator was previously pre-battered when ordered.
“Now we get alligator fillets. We fillet them and then we make fresh alligator nachos, alligator bites,” Ochoa said.
A more recent adjustment has been the introduction of seafood and lobster platters.
Ochoa said the quality of their seafood, like the prawns, is one of the reasons their food stands out.
The #1 seller is the Catfish Platter, followed by Cajun Seafood Pasta, Fish and Chips, Alfredo Shrimp, and Pontchartrain Goldfish.
A flexible menu is in line with Ochoa’s business strategy to rotate operations in response to market conditions.
This means that staff of approximately 45 are rotated between sites to respond to customer traffic ebbs and flows and maintain food consistency.
And, the days of service are modified if necessary. Restaurants recently moved opening days from Wednesday to Sunday, in part in response to the Omicron variant’s spike in COVID-19 cases, Ochoa said.
Compressed hours may continue at the south side location as construction progresses on Buffalo Gap Road.
The next big change will be the introduction of Sunday brunch in about two weeks, with free mimosas.
“It’s going to have some new things you’ve never seen before,” Ochoa said of the brunch menu.
keep it personal
Robert Jr. has become the face of Galveston Seafood Company through his daily Facebook videos about schedules, special menus and free offers.
“It brought us into another industry where people are looking for his videos every day to see them. We can’t go anywhere without someone knowing who he is,” Ochoa said.
Connecting with customers face-to-face is also important, he said, to foster word-of-mouth advertising. His philosophy is simple: “touch every table, talk to every customer”.
At the end of the day, however, the restaurant’s most personal aspect may be the food that harkens back to coastal Ochoa days.
When discussing the idea for the restaurant with his family, “I said I would love to share this experience with the people of Abilene because I really fell in love with the city and the people,” said Ochoa.
Laura Gutschke is a generalist journalist and food columnist and manages the online content of the Reporter-News. If you enjoy local news, you can support local reporters with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.