People who vacation on the coast may respond differently to seafood than those who live near the water. If you have memories of shrimp baskets on the Panhandle or lobster rolls in Maine, you probably feel a surge of nostalgia every time you discover such a treat in a landlocked city.
Donna Lee grew up in the Midwest. Her childhood happy place was any shack that sold fish and chips or crispy fried seafood in a brown bag. After 20 years as a Chicago restaurant manager, she was ready to own her own place. That’s when the idea of opening a casual seafood place hooked her.
“I was at the time almost exclusively pescatarian,” she said, “and finding that I could not just have a quick grilled fish over veggies or over salad without having the white-tablecloth experience.”
Partly out of personal necessity and partly because of a perceived need in the market, she launched the fast-casual Brown Bag Seafood Co. six years ago in downtown Chicago. Her goal was to provide healthy eating options and a more charming environment than a drive-through.
In October, Lee opened the first Brown Bag outside Chicago — at Atlanta’s Colony Square. Because of the pandemic, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“We opened the doors, and it was as if we had a normal opening,” Lee said. “It was busy out of the gate. We had way too few people working. We had people who racked up more time that week than we ever had in the company, like probably combined.”
The boss herself ended up living in Atlanta for about a month and working the line.
Brown Bag came to Atlanta with plans to open at least four stores in the area (and already has announced a second, at Westside Provisions District), so the response to Colony Square was reassuring. “Atlanta,” Lee said, “has a predisposition for enjoying seafood. It’s just built into the culture.”
For a female entrepreneur who’s grown her company from one store to nine in six years, pandemic Atlanta offers a silver lining. Back home in Illinois, dine-in service is banned, and five of Lee’s Chicago restaurants temporarily are closed, “because they are so dependent on office population.”
At Colony Square, Brown Bag enjoys a Peachtree-facing facade with a patio and a slender interior space with a walk-up counter. The something-for-everyone menu follows a three-step format that allows you to pick a protein and pair it with grains, greens and veggies, or have it as a salad, sandwich or taco. Then, you choose optional sides: tots, slaw, chowder, garlic bread, broccoli and cauliflower.
Dinners include a $24 lobster roll with truffle-parmesan tots; fish and chips; and a keto salmon salad. For families seeking eat-at-home options, there are family bundles, lobster-roll kits, and a $60 care package (lobster roll with tots, fish and chips, grilled-salmon power box and grilled-shrimp salad), with 100 percent of sales going to the staff.
After chatting with Lee, I placed an order for pickup. I managed to finagle a parking spot in front of the restaurant, dash in, retrieve my order, and say hello to the cheerful staff.
I was quite happy with my curry fish cakes sandwich with tots and Louisiana tang slaw. A grilled-salmon dinner with spicy cauliflower and a mini chowder also was good. I’d be happy with a bowl of that creamy chowder any day, and I loved that the salmon was nicely caramelized on the exterior, yet tender within.
Fish and chips reminded me a bit of Long John Silver’s (in a good way); alas, they had gotten a little cold by the time I got home. A combo of crispy cod and crispy shrimp over a salad was my least favorite meal. The shrimp and fish had little discernible seafood flavor.
Lee never trained as a chef, but the Brown Bag food is her baby. Given Brown Bag’s growth — during a pandemic, no less — I’d say she has considerable flair as an entrepreneur, too. For patrons looking for healthy seafood options, a little nostalgia and a friendly price point, Brown Bag nails it.
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BROWN BAG SEAFOOD CO.
Menu: fast-casual seafood
Alcohol: not yet
What I ordered: fish and chips; salmon with spicy cauliflower and mini-chowder; curry fish cake sandwich with classic tots and Louisiana tang slaw; crispy cod and crispy shrimp combo over salad; truffle-parm tots
Service options: dine-in; takeout; delivery via DoorDash, Grub Hub, Uber Eats
Outdoor dining: yes
Mask policy: required, for staff and guests
Address, phone: 1201 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta; 404-883-2175
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily
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