The best way to reach Big Fish Restaurant Group co-founder Eric Sugrue these days may be in his car as he travels the state opening seven new restaurants close to some of Big Fish’s existing concepts.
“When you’re faced with opportunities, you often have a choice between doing it yourselves or taking a chance with a competitor” taking the available space, Sugrue said. “We’ve chosen to do it ourselves.”
He wouldn’t specify how much Big Fish is investing in the new properties beyond saying it’s “in the millions” and that the growth wouldn’t be possible without the Big Fish team, which includes Vice President Holly Monaco, Paul DeBrigida, Chris Lowe, Amy Lambden, Michael McNutt, and Joe Lopez and all of the group’s managers and teams.
“The Big Fish brand is highly respected and known to operate with aggressive leadership who look for the right opportunities to continue its growth in the market,” said Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman. “They are an important restaurant group and business leader offering great opportunities for hundreds of Delawareans.”
The first new concept is BarRoja, a southern California taco and tequila bar that will open in the next few weeks. It shares an adjoining wall and parking with Big Fish’s popular Trolley Square Oyster House at 1707 Delaware Ave.
Big Fish purchased the former Scratch MaGoo’s and Oldbanks Craft Bistro along with four apartments from owner Scott Martin in December 2018.
“We probably paid a bit too much, but putting them together was a good idea,” Sugrue said. “We originally thought it would be a tavern, a neighborhood bar and grill, but the kitchen was tiny so we re-evaluated. We asked our guests at the Oyster House what they thought, and they suggested a taco place.”
Big Fish decided to lease OldBanks next door to Bryan and Andrea Sikora, owners of La Fia Bistro on Market Street. Big Fish has also renovated the apartments and has begun leasing them.
Over in the area of Mikimotos Asian Grill and Sushi Bar and the Washington Street Ale House, which Big Fish purchased in June 2017 (along with the Stingray Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach) after the death of Darius Mansoory, work is continuing on Torbert Street Social, whose property was included in the purchase. Big Fish also operates the Harvest House coffee shop in the same building as the Ale House.
Construction on the Torbert Street Social’s speakeasy concept — essentially a tavern with a cocktail lounge, outdoor seating, and acoustical entertainment — began in September and the restaurant should open in mid- to late June, Sugrue said.
“There’s nothing like it in the city of Wilmington,” he said of the building behind Mikimotos. “It’s been a stable, a print shop, and is on the historical registry.”
Over on Wilmington’s waterfront, Big Fish plans to open Riverfront Events in August or September that will host business conferences, weddings, and other celebrations. The company is partnering with Kennett Square-based Onix Group on a 114-room hotel and the events space. Big Fish purchased the property next to its Big Fish Grill a few years ago with the idea of doing banquets and events. Big Fish will manage Riverfront Events while Onix will manage the hotel.
Big Fish also plans to open Taco Grande, an “authentic Tex-Mex fast-paced family concept with homemade tortillas.” Construction has started and the restaurant will open in October or November to the left of Big Fish Grill on the waterfront and next to Iron Hill.
And finally, the former Moro restaurant at 1307 N. Scott St. will have a new concept. Big Fish plans to open a steakhouse in the building where chef/owner Michael DiBianca emphasized Mediterranean flavors for 14 years until he closed in the summer of 2016. Sugrue said it’s premature to discuss the new concept and name.
As busy as Big Fish is in northern Delaware, he’s not ignoring Big Fish’s hometown of Rehoboth Beach. The group purchased the former Zebra Italian restaurant business in October and is reopening as Sazio Coastal Seafood Italian Kitchen at 32 Lake Ave.
“I got a call from Greg Talcott, who was friends with the owner and had a deal to take over the property, change the concept, and partnering under our umbrella,” Sugrue said. “The restaurant was across from Stingray, so it seemed like a good idea. We’ve hired a general manager from outside who use to work for us and it will open in a couple of weeks.”
Sugrue said Big Fish kept the Italian theme because of the location’s history, but other than that, and the number of seats, there won’t be much in common with the immediate predecessor.
Big Fish has also taken over management of Obie’s By the Sea, a Rehoboth Beach institution that has been open for 30 years, and reopened it early this month.
“We’ve known the owners for years and they were experiencing health issues,” Sugrue said. “We’ve changed the menu to make it more seafood-centric, with less burgers, wraps, and hotdogs. We would not be doing this if we didn’t think we had an opportunity to purchase the restaurant in the future.”
And then there’s the new hotel/restaurant in downtown West Chester, Pennsylvania, that Big Fish will also partner on with the Onix Group. But that’s a story for another article.
– By Peter Osborne