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Inner-City Dock’s Hits the High Seas of Fast-Food

June 19, 1989

CHICAGO (AP) _ When Eugene Qahhaar started Dock’s takeout 15 years ago, he was just another black businessman peddling hot dogs and hamburgers from a rundown storefront on the South Side.

But since 1984, Qahhaar has taken on new partners, Dock’s has expanded to 17 outlets in this city and five more in Philadelphia, and he has set his sights on becoming a major force in the fast-food industry.

What sets Dock’s apart in the fast-food free-for-all is the fish that anchors the menu - dipped in a spiced batter concocted by Qahhaar. It’s not spicy-hot - he calls the flavor ″continental.″

Qahhaar and partners - Dennis Robertson, president of Fishy Things Inc., Dock’s parent company, and Qahhaar’s former landlord, Joe Pecora - hope to find a niche for Dock’s in middle-class black communities around the country before taking on a broader market.

″In the beginning, I did not set out to create an ethnic business,″ said Qahhaar, whose partners are white. ″I wanted something to apply across the board.″

But Dock’s started out in a black neighborhood and business was booming, so they concentrated on that market, though the first downtown, sit-down Dock’s is to open in Chicago later this year.

Four years ago, there were four Dock’s. Last year, a surge of growth brought 11 more to the Chicago area and put the fledgling chain in Philly.

Franchises, offered for the first time this year, make up three of the 17 area outlets operating now, Robertson said.

Within four years, the partners want 28 company-owned restaurants and 40 franchise operations in such cities as Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis.

Dock’s takeout menu offers batter-fried fish sandwiches, fish and chips, catfish and smelt - as well as fried shrimp, seafood salad, chowder, gumbo, cole slaw and onion rings. For dessert, sweet potato pie, bean pie embellish the more routine offerings of cheesecake and carrot cake.

The fish sandwich, whiting fried in polyunsaturated oil, ″is just sensational,″ Robertson said.

Dock’s orange-white-and-green shops have a 1950s flavor, with portholes and roped timbers, a spouting-whale logo and the slogan, ″That great fish.″

″We don’t go into standard buildings, so the colors are really what alert the people,″ Robertson said, noting Dock’s prefers to rehabilitate abandoned inner-city stores and gasoline stations.

Dock’s owners have their work cut out for them, partly because seafood can be a tricky menu item in the competitive fast-food business. Most people still prefer burgers.

″Fish chains have had a bad time. Arthur Treacher’s is an example, although they are making somewhat of a comeback,″ said Stuart Meyer, professor of policy and environment at Northwestern University’s J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

But a distinctive product can make the difference.

″Offering something that is successful in one place makes it easier to penetrate other markets, if it’s really new,″ Meyer said.

Dock’s can make it with proper financial backing and a solid management formula, Meyer said. If Dock’s achieves success in the inner city, the market will look more attractive to others.

Qahhaar says he’s sure he has a winner.

Docks is expected to top $11 million in sales this year in the city, up from $10 million in 1988, he said.

The Philadelphia outlets, which did $1.9 million in sales last year, are being franchised, Robertson said.

While the partners have been approached about selling stock to the public to raise money for more expansion, Robertson said, ″we need to do some growing and proving this kind of success can be replicated elsewhere.″

Qahhaar, in his 40s, opened his first restaurant in 1973, selling hot dogs and hamburgers. He named the place after his father, Dock Meadows, an Alabama house painter. Qahhaar - formerly Eugene Meadows - changed his own name when he converted to Islam.

One night, a Muslim selling fish door to door offered him a good deal if he’d buy 50 pounds of whiting. Business was poor, so he gave it a try.

″I bought some spices and made up a recipe,″ said Qahhaar. ″I made several batches of batter and the one I liked was the one I kept.″

The fish was gone in a week, but the customers who bought it kept coming back.

By 1975, Dock’s was specializing in seafood, but Qahhaar was having trouble making ends meet. Five years ago, despite a thriving business, he was months behind in rent.

His then-landlord, Pecora, introduced him to Robertson, then part owner of several Sizzler restaurant franchises in area suburbs.

Robertson remembers he didn’t look forward to the meeting. He was doing fine and had no desire to get involved in an inner-city business.

″There was a great line of people outside waiting to get served,″ he recalled. ″I said, ‘What does he need us for?’ That’s when Joe revealed to me that he owed him a lot of money.″

A cordial relationship developed, and the partnership in which each controls a third of Fishy Things Inc. Robertson shed his other business interests.

Robertson concedes the inner-city locations could hold down profits because of generally lower household incomes, but notes there are advantages, including high population density and fewer competitors.

Property is cheaper, and there are plenty of rehab opportunities.

Qahhaar says he’s taken some heat for taking on partners, but has few regrets.

″I look upon myself as a creative person. Administration is not my strong suit. I struggled along for several years, not getting the company to the point where I wanted to,″ he said.

″If you have to do things to make it stronger, to get more money or better management skills, then you do it,″ Qahhaar said.

Pecora handles real estate decisions and Robertson the business end at Fishy Things headquarters in southwest suburban Willowbrook.

″When Robertson came aboard as a partner, he had a portfolio the banks could respect,″ Qahaar recalled. ″We received banker support, paid debts. A lot of problems were eliminated.″

End adv for Sunday June 18

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