Focus on value has fish seller growing

From foam plates to hand-lettered signs, there's nothing fancy about the Wichita Fish Co. And that's how fans of the restaurant and retailer, a fixture on the west side for some 30 years, like it.

"Good food, affordable," owner Larry Towns said of his approach. "People are looking for a value."

Towns has spent most of his working life selling fish and seafood. He started as a wholesaler for large distributors 40 years ago.

"People would say 'You're in Kansas? You're in the seafood business?' I saw the need," Towns said. "Everybody and his brother were meat specialists. Hardly anybody knew anything about seafood."

In the mid-1990s, Towns and his wife, Judy, bought the Wichita Fish Co. Its owners had run it primarily as a retail operation. But as supermarkets and club stores carried more seafood, Towns said, he realized that approach wasn't going to work. He decided to turn the business into a restaurant first and retailer second.

He expanded his hours and added 60 seats in a second room, tripling the capacity. There's also a covered patio out front that's popular in good weather.

Today, he said, the retail portion "pays the utilities" while the restaurant turns a profit. Towns remains proud of the retail side, saying he offers the biggest selection of seafood of any store in the state. About 30 varieties — from frog legs and lobster to red snapper and oysters — were available in freezer cases on a recent visit.

For dine-in customers, the number one seller is fried catfish, although Towns said grilled seafood becomes more popular with health-conscious diners every year.

Towns also runs a wholesale operation, selling to a few dozen restaurants and competing with much larger wholesalers through a combination of "product knowledge, customer loyalty and service." Wholesaling brings in more revenue, although Towns said the restaurant remains his biggest money maker.

All three prongs of the Townses' business work together. He gets the seafood he serves in his restaurant at wholesale rates. If he can't sell something from his retail freezer case, he can always offer it to restaurant customers.

Three weeks ago, he opened a second restaurant in Haysville with a former employee, Mike Coster, in charge. It offers a similar menu but no retail.

"We're up," Towns said of his sales. "Hardly any restaurant can say that."