Nompumelelo Magwaza

Seafood restaurant Ocean Basket, which has 176 franchised outlets, says it will almost double its store numbers to 300 by 2017 as it rolls out a plan to grow its footprint locally and internationally.

Ocean Basket, which competes with the likes of Spur chain John Dory’s and the independent Cape Town Fish Market, said the new stores would increase the company’s footprint to 16 countries from the nine countries it currently operated in. The business was started by brothers Fats and George Lazarides 19 years ago.

The restaurant’s model is based on the premise of bringing seafood to the man on the street. “By removing the frills associated with ‘silver service’, it found a gap to reduce margins for the consumer,” the company said.

Ocean Basket chief executive Manny Nichas said in the early stages, Ocean Basket owned 35 restaurants, with six restaurants owned by franchisees. “This became very difficult to manage and we had monetary challenges among other problems and decided on a franchise business model.”

The restaurants were eventually sold to franchisees, with Ocean Basket managing the supply chain division.

“Supply chain has been one of our successes because we have been able to control our stocks from the early days and we still do,” he said.

Ocean Basket controls all the stock and supplies all of their stores worldwide.

“The supply-chain environment was very challenging at the moment because of the problems with supply and shortages of various fish,” Nichas said.

The group buys seafood stock from all over the world, sourcing from sustainable suppliers who are certified and practise sustainable farming.

The company buys seafood from India, Norway, New Zealand and other parts of the world. Hake is sourced locally and from the Namibian coast.

Nichas said the company had gained traction internationally by being the first South African company to open a store in the Dubai International Airport, and opening two other restaurants in that country.

Ocean Basket has seven restaurants in Cyprus and others in Nigeria, Mauritius, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho.

The company will soon open stores in Botswana, Tanzania and Uganda.

Nichas said there had been an incredible response from international businesses who were interested in buying Ocean Basket’s master rights to operate restaurants in countries like Russia, Ukraine and Greece.

“Protein still remains the first choice in people’s diet. We have seen a huge growth in demand from [the] middle class; they have been frequenting our stores lately,” Nichas said.

He said there was a lot of competition in the seafood restaurant space with more single restaurants and other popular franchises.

“Any brand that offers sea-food becomes our competitor,” Nichas said.

Absa Investment retail analysts Chris Gilmour said fish was becoming one of the most favoured proteins after chicken.

The fish offering has been a relatively slow performer in South Africa compared with chicken, which remains the number one source of protein.

“It has never had the same kind of cachet as chicken. But I think its day is coming,” Gilmour said.

Ocean Basket has recently opened up takeaway stores at Shell Ultra City petrol stations to gain access to the takeaway food market.

“We see these stores as an opportunity to grow the brand further by reaching a target market we may not have been formerly exposed to,” Nichas said.