Food Arts presents the March 1996 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael E. Hurst, the owner of 15th Street Fisheries and Boathouse in Fort Lauderdale and an indefatigable industry advocate, educator, and communicator.
Hurst has crystallized over 40 years of experience, into a customer-first service doctrine that he's shared, through popular speaking engagements, with food and hospitality groups, schools and universities, and other industries as well. "My message relates to marketing, service, and management," Hurst says. To convey that message, he has polished an arsenal of aphorisms ranging from "Manage your restaurant from the front of the house, not the rear entrance" to "hospitality is happening. Bring in the people."
"The assets of our business are our guests," he says. "If you stay guest-focused, you can stay alive."
At 15th Street Fisheries, Hurst puts his philosophy into practice. His 320-seat restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway is designed to look like a turn-of-the century seafood processing plant. e opened in in 1979 with his partners from the Marina Bay Hotel and New River Storehouse restaurant, a Fort Lauderdale hotel/restaurant complex that opened in 1974.
A trade of his managing interest in New River for sole ownership of the Fisheries put him in control a few months after the launch.
Touched by a bit of Barnum, Hurst's gambits—which have included welcoming an elephant into the bar, offering rock-bottom-priced-drinks, selling "bugs" (a hard-shelled lobster tasting, spider-related morsel from Australia's Moreton Bay) in large quantities, sending flying fish to a table via heliums balloons, hanging a Christmas tree upside down, and putting alligator cooter (turtle), ostrich, cashew conch, barking crayfish on the menu—all are designed to delight customers and build image. Hurst created a clever early-bird dinner plan—a big hit with the area's large community of retirees—in which all those seated between 5 and 5:15 p.m. get $5 knocked off the price of an entree.
There may not be enough tuna, red snapper, swordfish, and dolphin—the restaurant's most popular fish—in the sea to satisfy his loyal clientele. With just three line cooks providing for 1,000 dinners on a tourist-season Saturday night—and 1995 sales of $7.1 million built on a conservative estimate of 24,000 diners annually—it's safe to say that Hurst has succeeded beyond his wildest schemes.
At this point, there is little about the business, the good humored, 64-year old father of five doesn't know. In addition to his restaurant duties, he's a professor at Florida International University School of Hospitality Management in Miami. Prior to opening Marina Bay, he was president of Don the Beachcomber in Pacific Palisades, California, from 1970-72 and executive vice president of Win Schuler's restaurant group based in Marshal, Michigan, from 1956-72. Hurst has served the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in may capacities, including that of president in 1990-91. He currently sits on the board of trustees of the Culinary Institute of America, is a corporate director of Bill Knapp's Restaurants of Battle Creek, Michigan, has garnered a slew of honors and awards, has advised innumerable industry groups and hospitality management programs, and has generously given time to civic groups, notably the Boy Scouts of America. still, Hurst remains devoted to his family. His youngest child, Andy, 28 is a manager at fisheries and the only one who has followed his father into the business.
Undoubtedly, Andy is absorbing his dad's prescriptions, particularly those that pin a restaurant's prospects for success on the front of the house. "Service was and is the highest level of competition in the hospitality industry," Michael Hurst says. "The lesson I took so long to learn is that the greatest compliment I can receive is a customer asking, "Where do you get the nice people who work here?"
"Michael gets his people enthusiastic about their jobs," says Boston restaurateur Anthony Athanas, who worked with Hurst in the NRA. "He's like a football coach. he builds a good team. he's one of the stars of our country."