Sacramento native Michael Phillips opened his first Coconut’s Fish Cafe in Maui in 2009. Since then, he has launched four more of his healthful-eating, fast-casual restaurants – two in Arizona, one in Texas and one in California. All offer Hawaiian-style fish tacos, salads and pastas.
His Sacramento location (1420 16th St.) opened on May 23.
Phillips, 58, said he named his restaurants after his cat, not Hawaii’s ubiquitous coconut palm trees. The Bee chatted with him about the success of his franchise, flavor profiles from the islands, and common mistakes home chefs make when cooking fish.
Q: How did you get into the fish business?
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A: When I was in Maui, I just couldn’t get really good food there, and every time I went out it would cost me $50 or $60. I was really disappointed in the price. These fish are caught in my front yard. I live on the ocean, and I’m thinking, “How can this be this difficult to charge these kind of prices?”
Q: Your Sacramento location seems to be off to a good start.
A: We have quite a following from Hawaii. I feed about 500 people from (in) Sacramento every day. I didn’t have to re-create the wheel here, nor did I have to advertise, nor did I have to tell anyone about it. But, thankfully, social media is tied to everything for us so we can enhance our brand. We opened up about three weeks ago. We (recently) had a record of 612 people we fed.
Q: A Wahoo’s Fish Taco restaurant opened in midtown and then closed not long after. Does that give you pause?
A: Our brand isn’t anything like theirs. ... Wahoo’s is a Mexican-style restaurant, with grease and all that. We are about fresh eating, island-style fish, all cut (fresh) every day. It’s a whole different concept. I don’t mind Wahoo’s, frankly. I love their burritos, but I think Wahoo’s was in a very bad location (on 18th and L streets).
Q: Speaking of location, it’s tough to find a parking spot around here. Has that affected your business?
A: It hasn’t affected our business at all, and the people that live down here and work down here are so used to it that it’s common for them. Fortunately, we have a lot of people within walking distance. With the redevelopment of downtown, all these apartments are filled with people and they don’t use cars.
Q: Tell me about the flavors on your menu. Are they authentically Hawaiian?
A: Most of my menu is infused with (Hawaiian) flavors. Pineapple juices, wasabi, ginger, all these things. I really wanted to use sour, sweet and savory. Every thinking process is about Hawaii ... the pineapple vinaigrette , the coconut milk, the mango that goes on top of the tacos. (It’s) really all about island-style flavors. No Mexican flavors at all.
Q: What are some common mistakes people make when cooking fish?
A: Overcooking it. Ninety percent of people overcook fish and then on top of it they don’t understand that the temperature of fish doesn’t need to be cooked like meat. For instance, we do chicken and steak here, and we do those at higher temperatures. At our grill, we have assigned areas just for fish because it’s at a lower temperature.
Q: Your dining room has a real laid-back vibe. How did you come up with the concept?
A: When I was a kid, I grew up surfing on a wood surfboard in Santa Cruz. (So) when I designed the dining room I really wanted my old surfing kind of style. Then on top of it I wanted to do something unique. I want you to walk in a say, ‘Wow!’ What we want to do is put you on vacation when you hit our front door.
Founder and CEO of Coconut’s Fish Cafe