MRM Talking With: Angry Crab Shack Founder Ron Lou

Ron Lou, founder of Angry Crab Shack,  a full-service Cajun seafood restaurant specializing in boiled shellfish, drives 800 miles visting each location to determine ways to improve the experience for employees and guests alike.  

The first-generation immigrant and first Asian American to play in the NFL, founded the brand in 2013 and has grown it to seven locations in Arizona. In five years, the brand aims to have awarded 100 locations nationwide. Targeted franchise expansion states include Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, as well as Utah in 2018.

Lou spoke with Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine about the importance of creating personal connections, entrepreneurship and plans to grow the brand. 

What is your background?

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I’m a proud first-generation American entrepreneur—my parents came to The United States from Mainland China to create a better life for our family and to ensure I had opportunities to accomplish my dreams and goals. I have accomplished an incredible amount because of the sacrifices my parents made, from being the first Asian American to play in the NFL to opening a series of successful restaurants.

I’ve taken my passion for entrepreneurship and built six restaurant concepts – each and every one has taught me the value of hard work. Most recently, I created Angry Crab Shack in an effort to create a new concept that was tied to my roots – a Cajun Asian seafood boil. It’s amazing to see family and friends coming together and making memories while enjoying a fresh and delicious meal at Angry Crab Shack. 

How did the Angry Crab Shack come to be?

I am always looking for a new challenge and I wanted to create and develop something unique where families can come together for a fun dining experience unlike anything else. I’ve always thought that there was something different and exciting about experiencing an authentic meal that encompasses international flavor combinations. Angry Crab Shack is a delicious mix of Cajun and Asian inspired dishes and seasonings. 

I started Angry Crab Shack in 2013 in Mesa, AZ. The concept had a vibrant, memorable dining environment and could offer high-quality seafood at a more affordable price. I pulled from my roots, experiences, and the flavors I grew up with to create a natural and authentic concept that would drive guests in for an experience they wouldn’t find anywhere else.

I was really attracted to the simplicity and bold flavors in Asian food and was able to combine Cajun- and Asian-inspired seafood, affordable prices, and strategic real estate practices into the winning franchise combination we operate today. We started franchising in 2016 and the first franchise location opened in 2017. We now have five corporate locations and two franchise locations operating in Arizona.

What is your leadership style and how do you implement it?

I am a very hands-on leader and I try to make a personal connection with everyone in the company – from staff to the corporate team. My goal is to bring out the best in everyone so they know they are a vital part of this organization—they should look forward to coming to work and being a valued member of the Angry Crab Shack family. To build on these relationships, I visit every location as often as I can to get to know everyone and make sure each location is operating as effectively as possible. 

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My interactions with employees are a huge part of each visit. I make a conscious effort to listen attentively to what each person has to say and show them that their work is recognized and appreciated. Our employees are the face of the brand – they are the ones communicating with the guests and controlling the experience families have at every Angry Crab Shack location. Investing in them is vital to our success.

What is the purpose of your visits? Why is it important to you? To the company?

When I visit each location, I’m looking for operational consistency and to see if there are ways to improve the systems and process we have in place. It is important Angry Crab Shack guests are getting the same experience, service, and high-quality meal regardless of which location they visit. During my visits, I typically don’t tell the staff when I’m coming because I want to experience the true atmosphere of the restaurant, rather than employees feeling pressured to perform better just because I’m there.

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Each location has its own unique characteristics, something that works at one location might not be the best fit for a different location, which is why it’s so important to observe and inquire about different day-to-day procedures or practices. I can see how all of the moving parts in each store encompass the overall culture of our brand, and then if something needs to be changed, I can better direct those initiatives.

Going on these trips is an opportunity to see what actually goes on in the restaurant on an average day and allows me to put myself in the guest’s shoes. There’s also a quality control aspect to each visit, making sure that all locations are giving every guest the authentic experience that I worked so hard to create. I’m very dedicated and passionate about the brand and want to know that guests are having an authentic experience every time, no matter what location they visit. My interactions with guests help me determine what needs to be done or improved system-wide and determine new strategies to make operations more efficient.

What is the experience like at Angry Crab Shack?

Each Angry Crab Shack is a dining destination that’s family oriented and caters to everyone for every occasion. Guests can expect an entertaining, affordable, and fresh experience. When they enter the restaurant, guests are greeted by a host or bartender and seated at a table lined with butcher paper – we even write their name on the paper in front of their seat. Guests are given bibs and tools used to open and eat their seafood.

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For efficiency purposes, we have added two communal sinks in the middle of the restaurant so guests can wash their hands without having to wait in the line for the bathroom. The restaurants are designed with a laid-back atmosphere and guests are encouraged to get messy, have a good time, and enjoy their company and the superior quality seafood that’s served.

What other system wide practices are in place to drive the brand and support franchise owners?

Each restaurant owner is a part of the brand’s foundation so it was important that a solid support system was in place to help restaurant owners grow and thrive. The support system we created consists of four components: training, marketing, technology, and real estate. 

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An example of this is demonstrated by the efforts of our marketing team. The marketing team helps franchise owners create a robust digital footprint, including local and social media marketing, and assists them in utilizing innovative digital advertising methods that help them reach their target guest audience in their local markets. 

Another way we support this tried and true system is by taking a different approach to finding new restaurants. We’re able to minimize the initial cost of entry and monthly overhead, allowing new restaurants to open faster than normal. Search efforts are focused on second and third generation restaurant locations that usually include functional kitchens and bars, properly sized utility and HVAC systems, fire suppression systems, and proper zoning. This allows for reduced build-out costs by limiting renovation while utilizing the existing equipment and utilities.

Having the right foundation and support has proven to create a successful franchise system and the brand aims to have 100 locations open and operating by the end of 2022.