From Carefree Beginnings to Blue Checked Linens & Red Walls

An Inspired Beginning

The opening night of Ray’s boathouse was June 30, 1972. I invited a few friends to join me and my wife at the time for dinner, hoping to see first-hand the joy we were delivering to our new customers. However, the night did not go as planned. Instead of joy, I saw frustration and disappointment as my customers tried desperately to get their busy servers’ attention. Food was late, drinks were forgotten and customers were ignored. I couldn’t stand it.

I excused myself from my guests and got to work. Opening nights are always challenging, and we were short-staffed for the amount of people coming through the door, but I decided that this was no excuse. Customers that choose your restaurant should always receive the best service. Why? Because they could have gone somewhere else, and they didn’t. They came to you. If that doesn’t deserve your respect and attention, what does?

That night motivated me to create a different kind of restaurant, one where the customer is given a complete experience when they walk in the door. The path towards Duke’s Chowder House had begun, and what an adventure it would turn out to be!

But back in 1977, when I opened the first Duke’s, I was kind of winging it. While I knew what I wanted to achieve, I didn’t quite know how to get there. So what do you do when you don’t know what you’re doing? You experiment. That’s how our unique brand evolved, through constant experimentation. Determining what worked and what didn’t was only possible when we put our exciting, and sometimes crazy, ideas into action.

Finding Inspiration

Establish a brand

A recognizable brand has been key to the success of Duke’s.

Every business needs to establish their brand; your customers must associate you with something memorable, otherwise, you become forgettable. I knew this going in, and took it on as a personal challenge. I went everywhere looking for inspiration! Restaurants like PJ Clarkes in New York, Perry’s in San Francisco and The Saloon in Beverly Hills all had a huge influence on the design of the first Duke’s Bar and Grill, which opened in 1977. These places were iconic for a reason, and I wanted to follow in those footsteps.

I believe that the secret is in the details, so I worked hard on the little things. I measured tables for maximum comfort and took pictures of décor I liked; getting myself kicked out of a few places along the way! I taste-tested hundreds of dishes trying to identify techniques, ingredients, and presentations I wanted to incorporate. Finally, all of these ideas swirling around in my head came together in my first Duke’s restaurant.

Evolution of a Brand

Establish a brand

The experience begins as soon as you walk in the door.

My goal for Duke’s was simple: I wanted to create a classy yet casual atmosphere with good food, good drinks, and top-notch service. With this in mind, I chose casual blue-checked linens for the tables and put up fun memorabilia of people named Duke from throughout history. The walls eventually expanded to include pictures of salmon, articles about sustainable seafood and reviews of Wild Alaskan Salmon as our menu moved more in that direction.

One evening, two designers told me I should paint the walls Chinese Red. I was skeptical, but they convinced me that the color would produce a warm, inviting atmosphere that customers would enjoy. Despite my misgivings, I followed their advice. Not once have I regretted that decision! Red walls and blue-checked napkins continue to be a part of our trademark look today.

Wild & Carefree

Establish a brand

Good wine available by the glass was unheard of when we started serving it. Now, it’s the norm!

The beginning was nothing more than a crazy experiment! Our goal was a fun, casual place with an unpretentious vibe. We wanted people to eat, drink and socialize like they would at home, but with exceptional service the entire time. Part of the secret to happy customers is a happy staff, and that takes effort. We worked together as equals, trusting each other to do our jobs. I paid everyone in cash every night and we free-poured quality booze behind the bar. We took a chance offering good wine available by the glass, something no one else was doing at the time, and it paid off. Our customers loved the free-for-all spirit of those early days, and business was booming.

Not all of our experiments worked, and as a result, we nearly turned into that old cliché, another closed restaurant. But by combining that early free-spirited approach with solid business practices, we were able to turn it around. Looking back, I honestly can’t tell you how, but we stayed afloat! Those core values we started with remain in place to this day and Duke’s Chowder House has become an undeniable success.

The Adventure Continues

Establish a brand

I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Opening and operating Duke’s has been my ultimate passion over the years; I can’t see myself doing anything else. Since the early 80’s, our menu has focused on supporting sustainable seafood and has now grown to encompass other sustainable food options. Our goals today include serving our customers delicious, wholesome food that was grown without harmful effects on the environment. Our brand now includes the stamp of Dukeworthy™, which means the ingredients we use live up to our exceptionally high standards. Wild Salmon, chemical-free vegetables, gluten-free chowder, hormone-free dairy and grass-fed beef are just a few of the choices Duke’s has made to ensure our customers receive the best food possible, as well as protecting those choices for future generations.

From our carefree start to our position today as a leader in the sustainable food movement, I could not be more proud of the evolution of Duke’s Chowder House. I am constantly motivated to aim higher by my family, my staff and my customers. Since that first night at Ray’s Boathouse, I have never been afraid to put on my apron and get to work. And I have loved every minute of it. There have been victories and challenges, and more than once I almost lost it all, but I have learned and grown every step of the way. Thanks for joining me on this journey; I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Book a reservation at one of our six locations and discover the unique Duke’s experience for yourself.

April 10, 2017