The Fisher King

By Kris Frieswick | Boston Magazine |

"DID HE TELL YOU about the fish pond yet?” asks Rich Heller, leaning forward on the table, nervously tapping his finger on its surface.

It’s April, just a few days after Legal Sea Foods has opened its new Harborside location, and Heller, the restaurant chain’s general counsel, is sitting up against a window in a far corner of the cavernous, industrial-chic restaurant.

Heller has known Legal’s president and CEO, Roger Berkowitz — his boss — since they were in elementary school. Back in fifth grade, he remembers Berkowitz launching massive food fights in the school cafeteria. Today, Berkowitz is creating a less literal version of a food fight — a 30-inch-deep fish pond in the restaurant’s foyer, a pond from which children will catch and release live trout. “There wasn’t one person in the room who thought it was a good idea,” Heller says of the meeting when Berkowitz announced his plan for the pond. Berkowitz envisions a fun activity that will teach children to appreciate where their food comes from, all while creating a new generation of customers. But Heller, the company lawyer, envisions children — traumatized by their first encounter with wet, slippery fish — screaming in horror for rescue by their parents. He sees hooks. He can hear animal rights activists picketing on the sidewalk, protesting the brutality of the catch-and-release system. He can see the frisky trout, doing what they do, jumping out of the water and attacking the fashionably dressed diners heading up the staircase to Legal’s first-ever white-tablecloth dining room on the second floor. (The trout won’t actually be attacking the guests, but it will sound that way in lawsuits.) It is, Heller fears, a train wreck in the making. “We’re trying to mitigate all the risks, ” he says, rapping his finger on the table.

Heller and others have tried repeatedly to talk Berkowitz out of this particular vision for the past two years, but a pond is what the CEO wants. He’s the idea guy (who also pays all their salaries); the details are for his team to sort out. The only thing that will kill the fish pond, Heller knows, is if Berkowitz eventually decides it’s not fun.

“I have a vivid imagination, I suppose,” Berkowitz says later. He’s sitting in his office at the eight-year-old, $15 million Legal Sea Foods processing facility and quality-control center in South Boston, just down the street from his new restaurant in the heart of the city’s commercial fishing area. The office has an expansive view of Boston Harbor and Logan Airport and is filled with the requisite photos of Berkowitz with various celebrities and family members. The shelves are brimming with business books, including The Oz Principle, which offers management lessons somehow gleaned from The Wizard of Oz. The wall-to-wall blue carpeting is covered with an orange fish pattern. Nontraditional choices, perhaps, but as Berkowitz says, “I like challenging the status quo.”

All photographs by David Yellen