Monday, June 18 , 2018, 9:53 pm | Fair 62º




Owner of FisHouse, Boathouse and Santa Barbara Shellfish Company Reflects on Hard-Fought Success

Restaurant business can be brutal, but Adam White says right balance all begins with employees

Adam White, owner of Santa Barbara Shellfish Company on Stearns Wharf, along with the Boathouse, Casa Blanca and FisHouse restaurants, credits employees and loyal patrons for sticking with the family-run company until it hit its stride. “It was like catching a wave,” he says. “We just hung in there. I got quite lucky.” Click to view larger
Adam White, owner of Santa Barbara Shellfish Company on Stearns Wharf, along with the Boathouse, Casa Blanca and FisHouse restaurants, credits employees and loyal patrons for sticking with the family-run company until it hit its stride. “It was like catching a wave,” he says. “We just hung in there. I got quite lucky.” (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

As Adam White tells it, he was still an embryo when his father set the groundwork for his future career.

Tom White was an assistant professor of marine biology at UC Santa Barbara some 30 years ago before something about lobsters and the local fishing industry caught his interest.

That curiosity led him to acquire a lease on Stearns Wharf to open a fish market, more of a wholesale operation than restaurant, although customers could buy steamed shrimp and most other shell-encased sea creatures to eat fresh from a window.

Those are the 1980 roots of the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company on Stearns Wharf, and the humble beginnings of a family business that would eventually grow to four local restaurants.

“My dad has always been a creative idea man,” Adam White told Noozhawk on a recent afternoon in his office near FisHouse Restaurant, another of the family’s ventures.

“My dad was instrumental. Little by little it started to work.”

The younger White now owns and controls the operations of Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, FisHouse, Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach and Casa Blanca Mexican restaurant, his dad having retired a few years back to split time between homes in Santa Barbara and Canada.

A laidback manner explains the trust White inspires in his 300 local employees, many of them in or just out of college, which was around the age he was when he took over the day-to-day responsibilities of running a restaurant.

He’s goofy, quick to joke and really only serious about one subject: paying his employees.

Making payroll wasn’t always a certainty, even when White was accountable for just 20 paychecks.

White grew up in his father’s fish market and restaurant, having already gone off to study economics and finance at the University of Colorado Boulder when a fire broke out on Santa Barbara’s landmark wharf in 1998, burning down the Shellfish Company and nearby restaurants.

He left school to help the family, and his dad convinced the landlord of the former Chart House seafood restaurant on Cabrillo Boulevard to lease the space to the Whites even though they lacked the equity to back it up.

FisHouse opened there within a year, and the family reopened the Shellfish Company on the wharf not long after.

White worked every day, learning how to manage employees, what booze to buy, and how to deal with banks and creditors.

His dad, who also helped open Enterprise Fish Company, once had to sell his Chevy Suburban to make payroll. White said the family has been down to its last dollar 80 times.

After taking two years off, White went back to college to finish his degree — his late grandfather said education proved a man’s worth — and then something happened about 16 years ago.

The restaurants started turning a profit.

“I can’t really tell you why it started to work,” White said. “It was like catching a wave. We just hung in there. I got quite lucky.”

He and his father took over the lease from what was then the Brown Pelican restaurant at Arroyo Burro Beach Park, a Santa Barbara County property, and opened the Boathouse restaurant in August 2008.

In 2011, White said he got a little cocky by venturing outside the seafood realm, opening the Mexican food restaurant Casa Blanca on Lower State Street.

The transition was rough, and the profits were slim, but the family was able to weather that storm, too.

“We struggled to find our identity,” White said.

He credits employees and loyal patrons for keeping his American dream alive, coming from nothing to something of a Santa Barbara family dynasty.

“I love the restaurant business,” he said, boasting that he has the coolest job in the world. “I’m really grateful to have humble beginnings. If there is a magic (restaurant) recipe, that’s it: employees.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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