Jeff King – iCugini, Water Grill, King’s Fish House, etc.

Jeff King iCugini Restaurant Santa MonicaRestaurateur Profile: Jeff King

Co-Founder & Chairman of the Board: iCugini (plus 16 other restaurants under the King Seafood umbrella)

1501 Ocean Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Jeff King and his cousin Sam King were born into the restaurant industry – their fathers moved from Minnesota to Southern California and opened their first LA-based restaurant in Huntington Park in 1945. When Jeff graduated from UCLA he bought his first share of the company, and thus began his restaurant odyssey. The family owned a number of generic restaurants, which Jeff describes as “one-stop-shops” where patrons enjoyed coffee, dining, bar, catering, deli … everything.

iCugini Restaurant Santa MonicaIn the 1980s, Jeff and Sam saw the tides shifting in the restaurant industry and recognized that their future should be in creating powerful concept restaurants. “The generic chains just weren’t going to fly anymore,” he says. “You have to be clear about what you do in the public eye or you won’t make it.”

The pair opened a restaurant in Downtown Long Beach in 1984 and then in 1986 were offered the opportunity and financing to open Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica, which began their focus on the seafood business. “What you don’t realize is how much research – lots of time and money – go into a good restaurant operation,” says Jeff. “I’m a Jewish boy from West LA – I had never had shellfish when we started this concept, but we visited oyster bars in New York and learned everything we could before opening Ocean Avenue Seafood.” Jeff and Sam were thrilled when, just one month after opening Ocean Avenue Seafood, the U.S. Surgeon General came out with an announcement that (essentially) “meat is bad; seafood is good.”

Today, King Seafood Company, which is run by Jeff and Sam, owns and operates 17 restaurants, 15 of which are seafood-based. In fact, the company even launched a seafood distribution facility where they source and portion all seafood for the restaurants on a daily basis. “Seafood is a tough business – aged products are not good products – everything is highly perishable,” says Jeff. With freshness and quality on the top of their list, Jeff and Sam have carefully built restaurants that carry great seafood. In fact, Jeff says the company’s Water Grill has earned the title “best seafood in LA” by Zagat since it opened. There are also 12 restaurants in the Kings Fish House chain, with the busiest outlet based in Calabasas.

“The best part about owning restaurants is that I have never been bored for one minute in my career. Show me another field where you can say that! You’re either going up or you’re going down,” says Jeff. “But if you’re standing still, then you’re definitely going down!”

King Seafood Company has experienced steady growth over the past 26 years. The economy has, of course, affected the entire hospitality industry, and King’s has had to adjust accordingly. “But we never compromise on the guest experience,” says Jeff. In 2009 the company had 1,700 employees, a number that has shrunk naturally through attrition to just 1,500 today. “We did not fire people and we did not cut our quality or our portion size,” says Jeff.king's seafood company logo

Jeff says that the hardest part of owning restaurants is constantly adjusting to the market. “Today we have a different economy and highly-educated guests,” he says. “We all have to be seafood encyclopedias and constantly adjust to be successful.” Part of that is making sure that the restaurants are staffed correctly. “Our staff is very carefully selected and trained – with midterms and finals!” he says. I don’t doubt it for a minute!

Cultural Sayings at King Seafood Company Restaurants

  • We offer an unconditional guarantee
  • Every decision must be based on the guest having a great experience
  • We exceed expectations
  • Complaints are opportunities

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