How a restaurateur saved a sinking skippers in Silverdale

SILVERDALE — The 21st century has not been kind to Skippers, a once-nationally known fast seafood empire that sunk into obscurity following the bankruptcy. But take a trip down Silverdale Way, and you’ll find a familiar white anchor pointing the way to a remnant of the once mighty fish and chips powerhouse.

It is there Mike Simon and a staff of six keep on serving clam chowder, fried fish and the comfort foods of the sea, all under a brand whose heyday goes back to when Ronald Reagan was president.

The 49-year-old took a chance on the foundering restaurant a decade ago, gutting the location and ultimately breathing new life into what is one of only five Skippers locations left of a brand that once numbered hundreds of locations. He’s built a loyal customer base that includes Navy veterans, sailors, and yes, those seeking a little nostalgia from the brand they remember.

“There are people that are just generally happy to be in a Skippers Restaurant,” Simon said.

The restaurant still makes everything to order; Simon teaches every employee to look customers in the eye and remind them it’s fresh out of the fryer. That means it’s hot.

Skippers Seafood 'n Chowder House owner Mike Simon talks about the franchise in Silverdale on Nov. 8.

The rise and fall of skippers

Skippers was founded in Bellevue in 1969 by Herb Rosen, a World War II veteran and record distributor. The chain would grow to be the fourth-largest seafood chain in the United States, buoyed by strong sales and snappy service in more than 220 locations, according to the Seattle Times obituary of Rosen’s death in 2001.

Fast seafood likely hit a zenith in the 1980s, and Seattle served as the battlefield for several burgeoning chains, including skippers. In 1981, the marketing version of a “fish war” was waged between Ivar Haglund, who’d recently purchased more than a dozen Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips eateries, and the growing Skippers fleet of restaurants. As Haglund grew his own brand, Skippers would follow with his own rebranding sometimes just down the street, according to the News Tribune of Tacoma archives.

“Skippers was sailing the high seas and we thought there was no stopping us,” said Randy Marsh, owner of the Vancouver, Washington, Skippers restaurant that survives today.

Rosen, for his part, ultimately sold the company in 1989 to National Pizza, owners at the time of Pizza Hut and Burger King.

But if the 1980s were full steam ahead, the 1990s would prove to be a Titanic challenge. Fish costs soared and the chain looked for ways to slash costs, including moving from a hand-cut cod to the “Captain’s Cut,” what Marsh called an “inferior, cookie-cutter processed freezer-to-fryer product.”

“At the time the customers led a mutiny and abandoned ship in their outrage to the far inferior product,” Marsh wrote on his website. “We were never able to regain that lost ground.”

Skippers Seafood 'n Chowder House in Silverdale on Nov. 8.

Silverdale Skippers and its staying power

Various attempts to revive the brand couldn’t stop bankruptcy in 2007, which led to the closures of most of the company’s franchises. It appeared the brand was headed to Davy Jones’s locker.

Enter Mike Simon.

Simon, who grew up in Renton, recalled his parents taking him to the Benson Road location. The restaurant has since been bulldozed. But the all-you-can-eat entrees drew the then-youngster to always remember fondly the brand. He ended up meeting and going to work for Marsh, seeing the Vancouver location’s success as no fluke.

Within the old brand of closed restaurants, Silverdale, he thought had the most potential.

“This is such a nice community with so much to offer on the peninsula,” he said.

He pursued a remodel himself with help from family, friends and “YouTube videos.” He found pilings in Aberdeen and old chains to bind them in Bremerton, giving the restaurant some seagoing flair. He has a lot of autonomy and no licensing fees from the owners of the intellectual property of Skippers, who still sell some of its products commercially in stores around the Pacific Northwest.

Simon gets fresh seafood from Odyssey Enterprises in Seattle, which cuts and dresses halibut and other kinds of fish he buys.

Profit margins are tougher in the seafood business, and repeat customers don’t appear quite as often. Their most loyal often grab chowder and fish at Skippers four to five times a year, Simon said.

He’s tried to maintain three things: “a clean restaurant, good service, and attention to detail.”

The pandemic was especially hard to weather; he recalled, in his accounting, that he could either lose $320 a day by closing entirely, or lose $280 per day if he stayed open. So he kept things going.

Even as things have reopened, inflation has hit hard, with the cost of fish, like everything else, surging.

Earlier this year, the Skippers brand was sold once more to Harbor Wholesale. Simon said he’ll continue to keep things running, even as an outpost of a once-mighty restaurant chain.

Just don’t expect Simon to open another franchise any time soon. One keeps him busy enough.

“It takes everything I have to keep the lid on this one,” he said.