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Salt Life Food Shack: You've Seen the Bumper Stickers; Now Try the Restaurant

You've seen the bumper stickers. And you've wondered what the hell the vague term "Salt Life" stands for.

In 2003, a group of longtime friends from Jacksonville who spent every moment they could surfing, fishing, or diving had the words "Salt Life" tattooed on the backs of their necks. In 2003, according to the Jacksonville Business Journal, they decided to buy $50,000 worth of clothing and stickers bearing the same design.

Then the empire grew, fast.

A decade later, the company's branded clothing, sunglasses, and sandals sell in more than 600 retailers nationwide. Salt Life sponsors an ever-growing roster of professional surfers, freedivers, and kiteboarders. The first Salt Life retail store opened in Jacksonville, and the company is on the hunt to open more.

"It's a lifestyle brand," says Austin Chow, a licensing manager for sports marketing giant IMG World, which also speaks for the company. Hidden behind Salt Life's image of a laid-back ocean-sports addict is an intense corporate machine. The company has ambitions that go beyond stickers and beer koozies. Chow says, "The food and beverage category have a fitting place within the ocean-sports lifestyle we look to promote."

In 2010, the company expanded into restaurants, opening the first Salt Life Food Shack in Jacksonville early that year. A Coral Springs outpost — a former Longhorn Steakhouse revamped on a $1.8 million budget ­— opened in April 2012.

From the outside, the Coral Springs restaurant looks similar to the endless line of white stucco buildings along North University Drive, where jacked-up Toyota Tundras bearing Salt Life stickers barrel down the road. Only a dark-wood tower above the entrance, adorned with a large Salt Life sign glowing teal, gives any hint of variety.

It might seem weird to have a beach-themed joint miles inland from the coast, but much of Salt Life's success comes from its big-tent stance when it comes to customers. Everyone is welcome. There's no discrimination against suburbans. No one makes you prove you know how to surf or gut a fish before you buy a sticker.

Inside, a 180-seat dining room is covered with narrow white wood slats. Support beams are wrapped in thick, weathered-looking rope. A suspended longboard all white and edged in wood grain and a glowing blue fish tank separate the bar from the dining room. A mosaic of thousands of tiny navy and teal tiles covers the bar's tall, vaulted backsplash. A replica of a blue marlin hangs between two flat-screen televisions, both broadcasting ESPN.

The burgeoning restaurant arm of the Salt Life empire is run at the corporate level by Greg Saig and Jeff Jabot, who purchased the licensing rights in 2009 for an undisclosed sum. Saig explains that he's been friends with Salt Life's founders for years and that the restaurant concept evolved naturally.

"I saw Salt Life taking off, and I basically approached [them] on the idea of developing a themed lifestyle-based restaurant around the brand," Saig explains during a telephone interview. He comes with three decades in the industry running the Jacksonville-based chain of Harry's Seafood Bar & Grille. He oversees all Salt Life Food Shack menus while Jabot runs operations.

Salty Ventures LLC, run by two former Outback Steakhouse executives, is the first franchisee and the developer of the Coral Springs restaurant. "We'd like to do 20 locations [in Florida] in the next ten years," says Bill Leahy, a partner in Salty Ventures and a former Outback vice president. Two million-dollar "shacks" are currently in the works in Stuart and St. Augustine.

"We focused around the Salt Life world, so we have some dishes from Hawaii, some from the Bahamas," Saig says. Costa Rica, where Saig owned a home and has surfed since the 1980s, is the inspiration for caliche's poke bowl, a fluffy cloud of rice topped with neat cubes of avocado, raw ruby-red tuna with spinach, and green onion.

It's the restaurant's top seller, Saig says, and led to such spinoffs as the seared mahi poke bowl ($15.49). A bed of rice comes topped with a cloyingly sweet soy-based sauce. The too-sweet rice is ignored but is topped with a bright mix of crunchy red peppers, zucchini, and squash and crowned with white cubes of meaty, firm-fleshed fish.

The Bahamas are the raison d'etre for the crispy, meaty "Bimini" conch fritters ($9.49). More than a half-dozen golf-ball-sized orbs arrive on parchment paper (stamped with the Salt Life logo) with a side of spicy, cream "Shake Sauce."

Like large corporate chain restaurants, Salt Life uses a lot of standard touch points on its menu to appeal to a wide range of diners. There are fish tacos, burgers, and, of course, a chicken caesar salad. Nachos get the Salt Life spin with a smattering of grilled shrimp and chorizo. Sysco is the restaurant's main supplier, and "We proudly serve Coca-Cola Company products" is written in small print inside the restaurant's blue-and-white menu.

"We always try to create a little something for everyone," Saig says.

The food is fair-priced and flavorful, but the most interesting thing about it is the business plan. Ultimately, a day living the Salt Life might include sipping drinks under the shade of a thatched-roof tiki hut. It might consist of a deep-sea fishing trip that hauls a small school of mahi-mahi out of pristine azure waters. It might also include boardroom meetings with a team of lawyers who aggressively root out satirists and anyone trying to make a buck off the brand's logo.

Salt Life has "brought legal action at least 100 times" against copycats producing logos similar to the company's trademark, cofounder and managing partner Richard Thompson told the Florida Times Union in 2010. "We have policemen going into mall kiosks around the country."

Thompson and the other founders rarely speak to the media. An interview request for this article was met with swift rejection from IMG. There's little time, as the company focuses on boosting profits, preparing for international expansion, and, of course, staying salty.

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Zachary Fagenson is the restaurant critic for Miami New Times, and proud to report a cholesterol level of 172.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson

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