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Legal Sea Foods CEO takes to TV to insist 'We are not a chain'

Monday - 8/11/2014, 5:34pm  ET

For Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz, calling his company a chain of restaurants is akin to calling it a four-letter word.

And for his part, he’d rather be called a seven-letter word — an “ass*&$@,” according to a strategically bleeped ad that’s part of a series of television commercials now running in Boston and set to begin running in the D.C. area next month.

The company, which owns three Legal Sea Foods in Greater Washington and is about to open a fourth at Reagan National Airport, takes umbrage to the designation of Legal Sea Foods as a restaurant chain.

Berkowitz appears in the ads in a number of oddball scenarios: taking a polygraph test about whether or not Legal is a chain, creepily stroking a pet lobster crawling on his desk, and not-so-subtly contrasting Legal Sea Foods with “chains” that offer bargain-basement lobster deals “fresh from the freezer.” Cheesy biscuits, anyone?

In addition to those in D.C. and Northern Virginia, Legal Sea Foods has more than 30 restaurants, most of them in Massachusetts with a handful scattered around the East Coast. They’re all called Legal Sea Foods, have the same base menu and use the same logo and tag line: “If it isn’t fresh, it isn’t legal.”

Sounds like a chain, right? I’d say so. But more than the technical definition, what Berkowitz is really pushing back against are the values people associate with chains: a fast-food aesthetic, food that comes out of a freezer, massive corporate ownership, “cookie-cutter” restaurants. He argues Legal Sea Foods isn’t a chain because each restaurant is “unique” and its fish is never frozen.

"Chain" has become an increasingly dirty word in the restaurant industry as younger diners increasingly want unique, experiential dining with a heavy dose of authenticity. For obvious reasons, that authenticity is easy for your small-town owner or your local restaurateur to pull off, less so for large companies with locations in a dozen cities.

Berkowitz prefers to call Legal a “group” or a “family” of restaurants rather than a chain, but the core problem remains, regardless of the nomenclature. Large corporate restaurant groups face an uphill battle with the segment of the dining population that’s prioritizing local food and local business, and that’s not likely to change through a bunch of TV commercials.

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.