From seafood shack to successful restaurant empire, the Whites make it work with a recipe of hard work and dedication.
It’s not such an unusual story…a family-owned restaurant starts out with humble roots, overcomes hardships and eventually grows into a multi-business operation. However, Tom and Adam White, the father-and-son team behind such restaurants as Santa Barbara Shellfish Company and The Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach, know this abbreviated version lacks many of the details that led to where they are today.
In the 1970s, Tom White was working as an assistant professor of marine biology at UC Santa Barbara when he became interested in the fishing industry. Drawn to the ocean and the independence that fishing allowed, he purchased a boat and began fishing lobster while learning the ins and outs of the local fishing business. He was soon hooked and, after noticing an absence in the local wholesale market, negotiated a lease on Stearns Wharf to open a small fish market of his own. In 1980, Santa Barbara Shellfish Company opened its doors, operating as a wholesale market—purchasing exclusively from local fishermen and their families—with a small counter-style restaurant component to sell freshly prepared seafood from the market’s small window.
“What began as a humble place to grab a bite, for customers too timid to cook crustaceans themselves, turned into an immensely popular spot in the summertime and on weekends,” shares Tom’s son, Adam, who spent much of his childhood helping out at SB Shellfish Co. and now manages operations of the family’s restaurants. “We’d routinely serve as many as 1,000 cups of our housemade New England clam chowder, which we churned out 25 gallons at a time.”
Although Adam left for college at University of Colorado Boulder, he continued to help his dad run the business while in town over the summers, where he learned to appreciate the communal aspect of the restaurant. “We had ranch owners drop off local Hass avocados and lemons that we’d use in our ceviche. We’d marinate local white sea bass in the juice of freshly squeezed lemons and stuff the truly amazing ceviche into those avocados. Everything was local and just a lot of fun.”
All seemed to be going well until one fateful night in 1998 when a fire erupted on Stearns Wharf, consuming 420 feet of the wharf and completely destroying three businesses—Santa Barbara Shellfish Company included. Upon news of the family’s devastation, Adam decided to return to Santa Barbara to help his dad re-establish the business.
While the Whites fully intended to rebuild on the wharf, an opportunity to lease the space of a former Chart House caught Tom’s attention and within a year, the duo opened Santa Barbara FisHouse on Cabrillo Boulevard across the street from Stearns Wharf.
“We hired a chef and a general manager, staff, did a minor remodel…but then within the first couple of months, both the chef and GM quit,” shares Adam. “Not only that, but we were very green and inexperienced in the restaurant business. There was a lot of stress, but we just had to manage it all by showing up, working hard and learning how to do everything from scratch.” Over the next year, the family endured several financial hardships, relying on friends and a dedicated staff that helped them make it despite being down to their last dollar on more than one occasion. “Talk about an underdog success story,” Adam can say now with a laugh. “People took chances on us as we learned more about the business. It was a rough few years, but eventually things just started to work out.”
In October of 2000, the Whites reopened SB Shellfish Co. on the wharf as a restaurant that featured wine and beer, indoor seating and a proper cook line, while still retaining the window service component with picnic tables out front.
After finally starting to see some success with both businesses, the Whites took over the former home of The Brown Pelican in 2008 to add a third restaurant to their portfolio, The Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach. Noticing the number of vacancies on State Street, they decided to take another risk in 2011, despite the bleak economic times, to open Casa Blanca, a sit-down Mexican restaurant with a large bar, loosely based on the lively Mexican restaurants Adam frequented in college. Although Casa Blanca was a departure from their other three seafood-focused restaurants, Adam explains that he and his dad weren’t afraid to face new challenges head on, adding, “and Santa Barbara loves its Mexican food, so it seemed like a great opportunity to venture into new territory.” The name Casa Blanca is a take on the “house” theme of their other restaurants, as well as the family’s last name. Today, each restaurant maintains separate identities, but “there’s a noticeable and fully intended common thread between all four locations. We want them all to be casual, simple and fun.”
While the Whites have dominated the market on oceanfront (and over-water) dining in Santa Barbara, they don’t seem too eager to slow down the momentum they’ve built. “We aren’t ruling out the possibility of another restaurant in the future,” shares Adam. “We are constantly throwing ideas back and forth. The restaurant business is truly fun for us. If you don’t love the business, you can’t handle the challenges that come with owning a restaurant, but if you do love it, you come alive during the most challenging moments.”
Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.