King is a prominent figure in the California restaurant industry, having developed and supervised the operation of more than 11 restaurants with his family’s company, King’s Restaurants, Inc., from 1960 to 1982. Following the sale of King’s Restaurants, he established Hospitality Consultants Ltd., which actively consulted with a variety of restaurant companies.
In 1984, he and his cousin, Sam King, teamed up to open 555 East Steakhouse in Long Beach, which was the first operation of King’s Seafood Company. This steakhouse sealed their fate and the cousins have been in business together ever since. URG/King’s Seafood Company (formerly University Restaurant Group) owns and operates a signature group of restaurants including: Water Grill; Ocean Avenue Seafood; 555 East, and Lou & Mickey’s, as well as Fish Camp, a fast-casual dining establishment in Sunset Beach and Pier Burger on Santa Monica Pier. They also own and operate 12 King’s Fish House/King Crab Lounges from Calabasas, Calif. to the Mexican border, as well as Henderson, Nev. and Tempe, Ariz.
Today, in addition to his role as chairman of the board of King’s Seafood Company, he operates Jeff King Consulting, Inc., as well as California Canadian Business Associates, Inc. King’s long list of board memberships and affiliations include: The Collins College Board of Advisors; California Restaurant Association; CSU Hospitality Management Education Initiative; UCLA Chancellor’s Associates; and the Los Angeles and Santa Monica convention and visitors bureaus.
Collins Editor Lisa McPheron recently sat down with King to learn more about his career and the state of the industry, and he had this to say…
Please describe a typical day for you?
No day is alike and that is why I love the restaurant business.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen since you were a boy working for your dad and uncle?
Restaurants used to be generalists. They were all-purpose coffee shops and anyone nearby would eat there for lunch because there weren’t any other choices. Now, restaurants have specialties, and there has been a professionalization of the hospitality industry. My father would never believe some of the controls we have in place to maintain consistencies across the restaurants. He wouldn’t believe that 80 of our managers have some kind of hospitality degree.
What is the key to staying relevant and successful?
You can’t be resistant to change. We recently opened our own King’s Seafood Distribution warehouse. My father and uncle always told me never to go into distribution, and I was against it at first. Sam convinced me otherwise and it has been the single best thing we could have done for the company.
We get fresh seafood delivered every day and we fillet and portion servings for all of our restaurants in the same place. It’s added a whole new layer of controls and efficiencies to our operation. We just bought a $45,000 frozen custard maker for our newest restaurant called Pier Burger on Santa Monica Pier. The frozen custard has been a huge success, so we are moving the maker to the distribution center and will make frozen custard for our other restaurants. It’s fantastic. My dad was wrong. My uncle was wrong. To be a guy my age and see a King’s Seafood Distribution truck on the freeway at midnight is wild. I’m telling you, you have to be willing to make changes like this if you want to be successful.
Can you tell me about a time when you had to change or face closing a location?
Yes, Royale Brasserie and Bar in the Gaslamp District in San Diego. We opened that restaurant just when construction stalled on PetCo Stadium in 2002. That whole area was hit hard. We closed and reopened it as Lou & Mickey’s and we serve prime beef. We went from losing a fortune to converting it into our second busiest restaurant. It’s mobbed.
I’ve heard you talk about “guest-first hospitality,” could you describe what you mean?
If anyone is unhappy, we will do anything to make it better. You try to impart your company culture into all reaches of the company to the people in the trenches because they’re your representatives. Do you realize your hostess is the first and last person a guest sees? Not only do you have to be a people person to work in hospitality but you have to like people. You have to recruit that attitude because you can’t teach that attitude. That loyalty… it’s hard to learn. You are active on a number of boards like the college’s Board of Advisors; CSU Hospitality Management Education Initiative and the California Restaurant Association.
What are the benefits of these affiliations?
I know people all over the state. Relationships, they’re everything. The CRA has given me an understanding of the industry in California from border to border. To be able to represent our brothers in legislative issues through the CRA, makes sure that the playing field is level. I’m active at The Collins College and other colleges because they educate the lifeblood of the industry. We have to support each other for the benefit of the whole.
After 50 years, why are you still in the business?
You either love it or hate it. I love it. I have lived to see so many changes. For example, you can now take your phone and scan this QR code to pull up anything you ever wanted to know about King’s Seafood Company. My father would roll over in his grave if he saw this. Anything is possible in this industry.
This story originally appeared in the 2012 fall issue of Collins magazine.
Jeff King is
Co-Founder & Chairman of the Board
URG / King's Seafood Company and a member of the college's Board of Advisors.