Opening a beach town restaurant on a summer holiday makes a memorable Memorial Day. The crew of Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina will never forget their first week. The first guest to walk through the door was an unannounced, unexpected, surprise — Emeril Lagasse.
“We were frantically trying to open by our Memorial Day deadline, ” says Johnny Fisher, one of the restaurant’s owners, recalling May, 2013. “And then a boat docked and Lagasse walked out.” The celebrated New Orleans restaurateur made a surprise visit to see his former employee of nine years, Fisher’s Head Chef Bill Briand.
Chef Bill was training new employees when Lagasse quietly walked up behind him, undetected. Explaining intricacies of roast duck and dirty rice, Bill invited questions. “I got one Chef, ” said Lagasse, revealing his presence, “What makes that rice dirty?”
And so it began. Johnny Fisher remembers the early days with fondness, a smile and wonderment. “We did everything the way you are not supposed to do, ” he laughs. “In launching a restaurant, months are spent — preparing menus, securing staff, making arrangements — but we did it on the fly. We literally turned the gas on to the kitchen on a Wednesday and opened to the public on Friday.”
They made it. Fisher’s was in business on the Memorial Day deadline. At the end of the night, Johnny and Chef Bill sighed in relief. “And then it hit me” recalls Johnny. “We have to do it all over again tomorrow.”
But it all came together and look at them now. Southern Living Magazine has acknowledged Fisher’s excellence three separate years, including recognitions as one of the top five restaurants in the South for 2017. In 2016 and 2017, Chef Briand, who in addition to working for Emeril Lagasse and Donald Link, was nominated as a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef category for the South Region. And Eater.com calls the coastal culinary spot, “One of the most essential restaurants in the South.”
“The Fisher’s Factor” is explained in two words: Everything matters. “This is going to sound vague, ” says Johnny, “but our achievement is a magic mix of everything we do. Yes we have great food, but we want to appeal to all senses through esthetics, cleanliness, service, everything.”
Appealing to all senses begins with great food. Dining in the company of yachts doesn’t hurt either. Not much enhances grilled amberjack, sweet potatoes in a root beer glaze, finished with white chocolate coconut bread pudding — except maybe eating it in a postcard-picture setting. Orange Beach Marina is that setting.
Constructed in 1978, the scenic port was built to serve the sports fishing community. Today in addition to Fisher’s, it harbors Bluewater Yacht Sales, Saunders Yachtworks, Coldwell Banker Seaside Realty, Orange Beach Marina Water-sports, The Fun Boat Dolphin Cruises, charter fishing, and 160 slips with 160 yachts, some with floor plans bigger than your college apartment.
Johnny’s journey to the picturesque dock began in the 1980s when Orange Beach Marina’s only restaurant was Hemingway’s. “I was here on a date, ” the former University of South Alabama baseball player recalls. He graduated with a business degree but somewhere along the way realized cooking is what he wanted to do and restaurants where he wanted to be.
In 2012 young Fisher was in the process of opening another area restaurant, The Gulf, when Orange Beach Marina offered a partnership proposition. The answer was yes. The bond of Bennett Long, Earle Long and Johnny Fisher formed for the restaurant that bears Johnny’s name.
ABOVE “I tell employees if you are not happy in your work, it shows in the food, ” says Chef Bill Briand. “And if you aren’t happy, let’s talk.”
Through a mutual friend, the new restaurateur heard about New Orleans’ chef, Bill Briand. Johnny had offered Bill a job at The Gulf, but instead, he followed Fisher to Fisher’s. And two young men with no formal culinary school education united in the Orange Beach enterprise.
Fisher’s restaurant is a two-level experience. Dockside is casual. Upstairs is elegant. Chef Bill is everywhere. The stairway is an extension of his legs.
There is no micromanagement, but Bill is adamant about what leaves the kitchen, “Serve it like you cooked for mama. Every entree has a side order of pride. In each plate are reputations — mine, yours and the restaurant’s.”
Part of the appeal of Fisher’s, as noted throughout social media, is the wide-ranging menu for a broad customer base, from yachtsmen to beachcombers.
“Downstairs is more casual, ” the chef notes. “People come in off boats, from the beach, and with flip-flop families.” Crafted burgers, fish and grits, fried chicken, mama’s pot roast and more welcome them.
Upstairs — with linen tablecloths, fine wines and a constantly evolving menu — features fresh seafood, steaks and seasonal vegetables. Fish is purchased off the boat. “We spend a lot of time working with providers, ” adds Chef Bill. “It has to be quality and we get the best of the best. We know what we are looking for.”
Johnny adds, “Our scallops are the best you can get. It is the only dish we have served from day one and probably always will.”
Today the upstairs crew prepares for a party of 17. Before the night ends, 500 guests may visit. Twelve hundred could dine below.
“We go through thousands of these in no time, ” the chef says, holding up a tiny plastic spoon that is quality control. He adds, “Nothing is made that we do not taste. Because if we don’t love it, you won’t either.”
In addition, Fisher’s retail store, a boutique created by Johnny’s wife, Beth, features original design items and selected products from socially conscious makers. Do not confuse it with souvenir shops.
The man with a namesake restaurant appreciates complements but acknowledges accolades are a two-edged sword, because good publicity fosters high expectations.
Fisher’s is unique for a tourist town — a destination restaurant. One doesn’t just happen upon it while meandering along the beach. It’s not on the beach. You arrive at Fisher’s because you set out to do so.
“People make a special effort to come here, ” notes Johnny. “They know about the awards we have received, therefore the bar is set high. We never forget that.”
During peak summer months, the restaurant employs about 100. As in all restaurants, especially in resort areas, staffing can be an issue. “In many beach towns, when summer leaves, so does your help, ” says Chef Bill. Fisher’s restaurant strives to be Fisher’s family.
“I tell employees if you are not happy in your work, it shows in the food, ” Chef Bill adds. “And if you aren’t happy, let’s talk. This job should be fun.”
General Manager Sara Kavanaugh agrees. “A good restaurant has a sense of home and family, ” she notes. “To employees, it is a community. They spend a lot of time here working nights, weekends, holidays. We have amazing people, some travel over an hour to get here. We need them, find them, and our challenge is keeping them.”
Johnny Fisher adds that recruiting and retaining have been lost in the restaurant industry. “We do better than most, ” he says. “Give your people the tools and training they need. If we don’t take care of each other, how can I expect them to take care of others? This isn’t just about food. It’s about hospitality.”
And whatever happened to Emeril Lagasse? “Oh, he comes back several times every summer, ” smiles Chef Bill. “He’s an avid bill-fisherman.” He’s also a big fan of Fisher’s.
Emmett Burnett and Matthew Coughlin are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Coughlin in Pensacola.
Text By EMMETT BURNETT // Photos by MATTHEW COUGHLIN