NEWPORT — “As people care more about what they’re eating and what they’re putting in their bodies and looking at the whole socioeconomic system in general, the more you look into it the more you care about where your food comes from and the details surrounding it,” Local Ocean Seafoods General Manager Tony Bixler suggested.
When Local Ocean, located at 213 SE Bay Blvd. on the Newport Bayfront, first started 15 years ago, the focus was more on the market and the retail aspect. There were few tables, Bixler said. But the restaurant was so popular the retail part took a second tier. Not a back seat, necessarily, he qualified.
“It’s all part of the equation, keeping the fish fresh and buying local,” Bixler explained. “One of the owners was a fisherman, so they would use a lot of his fish, and they would buy from the other smaller boats in the area.”
Keeping with that model, Local Ocean continues to buy all their fish locally. When it’s fresh season, in the summer, Bixler said, “you’ll be downstairs dining, and you’ll see a truck pull up with a few bins of fish, and that’s the fish that’s going to be on the plate later that day.”
Similarly, he said, “What you see in the case downstairs to take home is the same fish that will be served in the restaurant. Local Ocean is clearly dock to table. It’s pretty cool for customers to see that connection.” By buying direct from the boats, there are fewer hands involved, and it often saves days of travel.
When it comes to fresh fish, obviously summer is the best season — almost everything is fresh. Bixler explained that while it’s still possible to get fresh crab in the summer, by August, the shells are getting smaller, and there is less meat in the crab. December, January and February is a better time to buy crab, Bixler advised.
Crab usually starts out at a lower price at the beginning of the season, and as summer goes on, the meat gets smaller in the shell but the price goes up. “It’s one of the things locals know that tourists don’t; the summer is not generally the best time to buy crab,” he said.
Bixler noted that because they buy in smaller quantities, Local Ocean pays the boats more than the big buyer down the road. “It’s not a bad thing. We buy smaller quantities to keep it fresher, and we pay the boats a more reasonable wage. We’re doing our part to keep those fishing families going in these times. It’s tough, the fishing community has lost a lot of their market,” Bixler said of the pandemic that saw restaurants fold, or, as Local Ocean has done, adapt and even thrive.
“Over the last two years, we had to come to the conclusion that volume isn’t going to do it for us. At some point, we have to look out for our staff as well, taking a good look at our business model,” he said. Rather than the traditional restaurant industry business model relying on tips from customers to support their service staff, Local Ocean is trying a new model where the tip is included in the bill.
“We’re paying a much higher wage hourly, so (wait staff) is not relying on getting a good section or hoping for one table that tips better.” It evens the scale, he said. “We’ve given everyone across the board a wage increase with the goal of making it so everyone who is a full time employee here can afford a two-bedroom apartment.”
Bixler said the program, implemented in early July, is working well. “The team works great, and everybody is happy to get paid to do the work they’re doing and not have to rely on the whims of the season or travelers who aren’t used to tipping.
Local Ocean offers inside dining, take out and fresh fish at the counter daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., though winter hours may change. A Dock Box, a complete meal kit program, has had good reception, Bixler said. Dock Boxes can be picked up in Newport, delivered in Lincoln County and destinations in Corvallis and Portland.
“Even though our restaurant business is way down from previous years, we’ve been able to keep everyone fully employed during this time,” Bixler said. Local Ocean provides 50 local jobs.
When the restaurant first closed, the unemployment system was overrun, and several employees didn’t get benefits, Bixler said. “Our adaptation was to bring food to people, all the ingredients to make the recipe at home. That kept our staff employed through the pandemic.
“We came to the realization quick that this isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” he added, “Local Ocean not just adapting but taking advantage of this time to adapt ourselves to the long run.”