Surf meets turf and east meets west at Cowfish, proving opposites really do attract
Every evening, right around 6:30 p.m., the heady aroma of grilling burgers wafts across Six Forks Road. Drivers roll down their windows to inhale the scent, and The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar braces for a busy night. Business is smoking, both figuratively and literally; co-founder Marcus Hall says due to the smoke generated by heavy dinner volume, the kitchen staff has been surprised more than once by firefighters showing up to put out nonexistent fires.
The key to The Cowfish’s success is the concept—a restaurant that caters to both sushi devotees and burger fans. “It’s a little bit of something for everybody,” says Hall. “I can’t tell you the number of times I hear, ‘But my significant other won’t go out to eat with me!’ We’ve solved the sushi ‘veto vote.’”
Enter “burgushi,” a portmanteau that Hall says describes the marriage of meat and sushi in three different forms: sushi rolls created from burger components like the All-American Bacon Double Cheeseburgooshi; pickup-style sandwiches made from sushi ingredients like the What’s Shakin’ Tuna Bacon Sandwich; and bento boxes, “combo meals” with a mini burger, sushi roll and house-favorite side items.
It’s easy to gauge the chain’s current success by its Saturday night wait times, but Hall says the concept didn’t always seem like a sure thing.
“We were stressed out beyond belief (before opening), because we thought we might have just stepped in the biggest pile ever,” he says. “We just had to put blinders on and trust in our ability to produce…if you’re putting a great product out there and you’re creating great value, then how can you fail?”
Luckily, early guests loved the burgushi concept—as well as the vibrant, fun atmosphere and zany decor. The Raleigh Cowfish, located on the ground floor of the Captrust Tower, is painted an enthusiastic red and hung with original artwork by Scott Partridge that cheekily mimics Lichtenstein, Japanese woodblock prints, Broadway posters and anime. Every location also houses a large saltwater aquarium with colorful fish but only a single cowfish per restaurant.
“It has horns and is quirky and is an underdog…it’s our perfect mascot,” says Hall. “But we’ve learned that you cannot have more than one! They’re very territorial and they emit a toxin if they get stressed out. This tank was built by Animal Planet for a show called “Tanked,” and they put 16 cowfish in there. It was a civil war—it was horrible. We realized what was happening and got them all out, but for the first two weeks we were open, this tank had no fish in it.”
He sees a parallel between the territorial little fish and the restaurant chain; their uniqueness is their edge, so they don’t want to saturate the market in a given area. As the chain grows, it plans to spread out to new locations that will embrace its hybrid concept.
Hall, 41, followed in his father’s footsteps to attend N.C. State, studying business management as he worked various restaurant jobs. Before his senior year, he spent a year in Europe, learning Scottish hospitality working in an American eatery in Edinburgh.
“I learned this international language—a smile is so important, as is just treating people the way you want to be treated,” he says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but those are the building blocks of hospitality.”
After graduation, he dabbled in a few different jobs, then started working for business partner Alan Springate at his string of CiCi’s Pizza franchises. The pair opened eeZ Fusion and Sushi in Charlotte in 2005 and launched The Cowfish in 2010. The North Hills location, which opened in 2013 at the invitation of developer John Kane, is their sophomore effort; they’ve gone on to open incarnations in Atlanta and at Universal Studios and are slated to open a fifth location in Birmingham, Alabama this summer.
“We encourage our staff to live by this idea that we’re very serious about our product, but we’re not serious about ourselves,” he says. “We have a mission statement that basically breaks down to ‘Don’t suck.’ It’s a very guest-centric list of principles—do whatever it takes to please the guest. You should feel that as a guest coming in, if we’re doing things right.”