Culinary innovators at Houston-based Ignite Restaurant Group have been remaking the menu at Joe’s Crab Shack since shortly after it bought the chain from Landry’s Restaurants in 2006, but the changes have been more evolutionary than revolutionary, harking back to the casual seafood chain’s waterfront roots.

Now, a new ad campaign created by McCann Erickson with the tagline “100% Shore” tells the tale of the eatery in 30-second spots shot in Galveston that feature the rough seafood shacks that inspired the creation of the first Joe’s in Houston in 1991 and have flavored both the menu and the ambiance at the chain ever since. Today, Joe’s Crab Shack operates about 130 restaurants in 31 states — including a location that opened last week in Savannah, Ga. — and there are plans to open several more locations this year, said Chief Marketing Officer Robin Ahearn.

Ignite also operates 15 Brick House Tavern + Tap restaurants and just announced plans to acquire Romano’s Macaroni Grill, making for a busy week for Ahearn, who left a similar post at Applebee’s International to join Ignite in 2007. She took the time to share more details about the new campaign, what’s up next and why the chain’s fortunes took a turn for the better during the downturn.

Why launch the campaign now?

As a marketing person, we’re always looking for new ways to talk about the brand. From Joe’s perspective, we’ve been working on menu innovations, we literally flipped over from fried food to center-of-the-plate crab and steam pot since we acquired it from Landry’s. Before, the communication didn’t feel right, we didn’t feel right in our own skin in a lot of it. When we went through the review and hired McCann, and we saw [the] direction they were headed, it was like, “Oh my gosh, this is who we are. This is who we’ve always been, we just didn’t know how to articulate it.”

Our marketing calendar year kicks off at this point in time. For us versus a lot of other seafood concepts or other casual concepts, dining patios are such a large part of it this time of year. People are dying to get outside and eat on the patio. Our brand lends itself to digging into a pot; it’s casual, not a stuffy kind of place, and springtime and the patio lend itself to that.

When we go out and get food inspiration, we never go to a casual dining competitor. We go to the lobster shack in Cape Elizabeth or the place in Charleston that’s down the dirt road, where they serve bug spray with the tray of oysters. McCann showed us we can communicate in that way.

Are there more menu changes in the works?

The menu’s not going to change drastically, but the point is we’re going to be comfortable in our own skin, showing our Gulf Coast roots but with products anyone, anywhere can enjoy. [New] Joe’s Stuffers are stuffed clams served with Tabasco pepper sauce on the side. They’re stuffed with scallops, shrimp, vegetables and other seafood, which is usually a New England type of product, but with the Tabasco, you can manage your own heat level — that’s a way we give that nod to our Southern roots. The menu as a whole, as I mentioned earlier, has changed from the focus on fried seafood — that’s still on the menu, we still offer great stuff and people love our coconut shrimp. But seafood is such an experience and “Crab’s” our middle name. People want to dig in the pot, and you need a casual place to do that. Who wants to eat crab in a fine dining experience? You want to crack into it, enjoy it, and that’s been the center of the menu for several years. So we’re proud of it, because we didn’t spend the past five years turning the company around through discounting or dealing, we did it through innovating on the menu, giving guests what they want.

Today, it’s a restaurant experience, and people are willing to pay for that. Our best year so far was the year of the recession. We had an outstanding year that year. When people are really struggling, they’re not going to take those fuel stops in the middle of the week, but they’ll save up for sort of the big experience on the weekend. We saw a lot of that. We have playgrounds at a lot of our restaurants, so I can sit on the patio and have a glass of wine, the kids can run around the playground while I talk to adults, then they come to the table to eat. We can have this long evening. It’s a casual indulgence we can all enjoy, instead of getting a babysitter for the kids.

How does Joe’s handle fluctuating seafood costs?

We have a pretty structured approach. We have a menu engineering firm that helps us. We are very conservative on price. Seafood is already a more expensive meal, so we also manage the menu pretty well [so we] can focus on different products. For example, if Dungeness is high one year, we might focus on king crab. We’ve got a pretty flexible menu in terms of that, so instead of raising prices to make up for higher costs, we have a tendency to manage the menu so we’re not zinging people. Also, we’ve introduced more platters with a variety of items, some of which cost less. 

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