Swimming With the Big Fish

Pam George

Pam George

, Food & Drink

Restaurateur Eric Sugrue builds on Darius Mansoory’s legacy

Eric Sugrue met Darius Mansoory only once. They were both guests at an Eagles/Redskins tailgate. But Sugrue, the managing partner of Big Fish Restaurant Group, had visited Mansoory’s restaurants many times, particularly Stingray Sushi Bar & Latino Grill, in Rehoboth Beach, Sugrue’s home town.

After Mansoory’s sudden death in January, many wondered what would happen to his company, Cherry Tree Hospitality Group. Of particular interest were Mansoory’s Washington Street Ale House and Mikimotos Asian Grill & Sushi Bar, side-by-side restaurants that anchor Washington Street in downtown Wilmington. The answer came in June when Sugrue announced the purchase of Mansoory’s businesses, which are now under the Big Fish Restaurant Group umbrella.

Those with an interest in downtown Wilmington’s vitality were pleased by the news. “I am so excited that Big Fish, a company that enjoys a statewide reputation for excellence, has purchased the properties of the Cherry Tree Hospitality Group,” says Martin Hageman, executive director of Downtown Visions.

Dr. Carrie Gray, managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, agreed. “We’re thrilled to hear that Big Fish has purchased Darius Mansoory’s restaurant group,” she says. “Darius was a long-committed restaurateur in Wilmington who believed in downtown before many others did. To know now that the vision he had for his restaurants will not only be continued but expanded upon is very exciting news for Wilmington.”

Darius Mansoory died suddenly in January.

Darius Mansoory died suddenly in January.

In many respects, it’s fitting that Big Fish Restaurant Group should have ownership of Mansoory’s culinary legacy. Mansoory and Sugrue shared a path to success that is laced with certain professional similarities, most importantly the ability to spot an opportunity and an untapped niche.

Taking Chances

Improving Wilmington’s restaurant scene was one of Mansoory’s goals in 1997 when he opened the Washington Street Ale House, which is located in two circa-1920s buildings that he’d purchased and merged.

Mansoory was no stranger to that section of town near Wilmington Hospital. He’d owned a tavern, Knuckleheads, and a pizza restaurant there from 1991 to 1993. (Between 1993 and 1996, he worked in restaurants in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.)

His idea for a beer-centric restaurant came just as brewpubs were bubbling up around the country. Dogfish Head, for instance, debuted in 1995 and Iron Hill in 1996. Mansoory, who borrowed money from friends on a handshake, was banking on people’s burgeoning interest in microbrews. He once vowed to put “chili and cheese on every chip.” Nachos, burgers, and sandwiches made up the bulk of the menu, which evolved with changing tastes.

But in the 1990s, restaurant patrons weren’t flocking to downtown Wilmington in the late evening. There were more than a few nights when the ale house’s restaurant was empty by 8 o’clock. Mansoory, however, refused to close until 1 a.m.

By 2000, he was confident enough in the growing scene that he opened Mikimotos. The sleek, contemporary restaurant was a departure from the more common mom-and-pop sushi restaurant with bamboo and pagodas.

Renovations that enlarged the ale house’s kitchen led to the creation of Presto!, a coffee house and—hopefully—an after-theater hangout, as well as Maraschino, a second-floor event space. Unfortunately, Presto! had trouble finding its footing and closed.

Big Fish In the Small Wonder

Like Mansoory, Sugrue entered the entrepreneurial waters in 1997 when he and brother Norman

The bar at Washington Street Ale House, which has undergone some cosmetic makeover.

The bar at Washington Street Ale House, which has undergone some cosmetic makeover.

opened the first Big Fish Grill on Route 1. At that time, most independent restaurants were in downtown Rehoboth Beach. (The restaurant 1776 was an exception.) Opening on the highway was a risk.

Sugrue already had a wealth of experience. He started working in the industry at age 13 as a busboy in Rehoboth Beach. After earning a degree in business from the University of Delaware, he joined Knoxville, Tenn.-based Cooper Cellar Restaurant Corp.

Back in Delaware, Sugrue and his brother pooled their money, borrowed from friends and family, and took out a bank loan to open Big Fish. The restaurant was a hit with families looking for affordable but good food at the beach.

Big Fish on the Wilmington Riverfront opened in 2009, and a location in Glen Mills followed the next year. Recently, a Big Fish debuted in Ocean View. The company also has other concepts, including Bella Coast on Route 202 and The Crab House on Route 1 in Rehoboth.

Sugrue also has a knack for finding established restaurants that go up for sale. Consider Summer House and Salt Air in Rehoboth Beach; he has kept those two concepts, which had name recognition. That was not the case with Satsuma in Trolley Square, which he turned into the successful Trolley Square Oyster House.

Big Fish Restaurant Group now has 10 restaurants in its stable, as well as a bakery, market, and wholesale division. The coffee shop space is expected to reopen, albeit to a tenant, and the banquet facility is functioning.

Nourishing & Nurturing

The sushi bar at Mikimotos Asian Grill & Sushi Bar.

The sushi bar at Mikimotos Asian Grill & Sushi Bar.

By the time Big Fish took control, Cherry Tree Hospitality Group’s restaurants needed “a little love,” says Holly Monaco, vice president of operations for Big Fish Restaurant Group.

Fresh paint and artwork and new booths and tables are part of the makeover. Improvements are also underway on the HVAC, lighting, computer systems, audio and TV systems, and flooring. Updates on the banquet facility should be done by mid-September. “We’re putting a great plan together to revive the on- and off-premise catering,” Sugrue says.

The company hired Paul DeBrigida to help ease the Wilmington restaurants’ transition into the Big Fish fold. “He has done a super job thus far of observing, assessing, and evaluating the current operations and implementing some new systems and processes that we feel make for a better experience for all of our guests and team members,” Sugrue says.

The service is being brought up to Big Fish’s standards. One has only to dine in the flagship Rehoboth Big Fish to spot the efficiencies that keep guests moving through the crowded waiting area to the tables.

Big Fish’s restaurants embrace a team approach. One server might take your order, but a number of servers may refill your water glass, deliver your meal, or whisk away dirty dishes. “They do it for each other,” says Monaco, who’s been with the company since 1999. “It’s one big team effort.” How to motivate this team to pitch in? “We find that a little structure and constant gentle pressure is key for us.”

The kitchens are creating dishes for possible menu additions, some of which are now on the ale house menu. But the Big Fish crew is still “getting our feet wet” with Mikimotos, Monaco says. Sugrue acknowledged that running a sushi and Asian restaurant—the group’s first—has caused some trepidation.

Hageman says the markedly different concepts, combined with Domaine Hudson, make the stretch of Washington Street a dining destination. “I believe Big Fish will not only continue this idea but will also grow the area’s desirability,” he says. Will Minster, director of development for Downtown Visions, concurs.  He says the nonprofit organization wants to focus on new growth in this section of downtown.

Sugrue’s vision includes enhancements to Torbert Street, which runs between Mikimotos and

Eric Sugrue

the ale house. The street until now has offered limited parking for the restaurants, and it’s often a game of musical cars to find a space.

“We hope to share our plan with the city as soon as possible,” Sugrue says. “Our goal is to bring the area a bit back to life, as no improvements have been made in many years.”

Meanwhile, he’s also juggling plans for a seven-story, 122-room hotel and banquet venue on the Riverfront. And he’s a partner with other restaurateurs in Baltimore restaurants.

But he seems to be up to the tasks, and judging by Trolley Square Oyster House’s busy dining room, he’s got a good track record in the city.

Says Hageman of the Big Fish team: “They are a very welcome addition to downtown Wilmington’s restaurant scene.”

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