Being a small business owner can be exceedingly challenging in this day and age, but John Karayan has defied the odds by successfully building a recognizable brand of eclectic beach seafood in Ventura County, CA.
While most restaurants don’t meet customer expectations, and usually fail to navigate the unforgiving waters of the marketplace, Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company (named after Karayan’s oldest two children; he is now a proud father of four) has changed the landscape of the city of Ventura with their “World Famous Fish Tacos” since 2007 and has already earned record-setting support at their Camarillo spot, which has only been open since May 12th.
Karayan, whose paternal grandfather was Armenian, grew up surfing, fishing, and doing other outdoorsy, hands-on activities. And throughout most of his adult life, he has always been beckoned by the vision of Spencer Makenzie’s, which started as a food truck and has now manifested as two restaurant fronts.
“I’ve wanted to open a fish taco stand since I was 19,” Karayan reflects.
With a passion that cannot be denied, Karayan shares a down-to-earth camaraderie with individuals of all backgrounds. From the common person to celebrities such as Kevin Costner, whom he took hunting one time at the request of the film star who wanted his cancer-stricken Labrador to have one more outing, the restaurateur is affable while being emboldened by a prudent business sense.
He has put his cooking know-how and sage perspective to use by designing a menu with his wife, Jennifer, that is simple and not overly complicated, à la In-N-Out Burger. Like the immensely popular burger chain, Karayan has focused on the quality of the food and the environment above all else.
“It’s all about the overall food and guest experience,” Karayan asserts. “You’ve always got to be better and offer the whole package. The food has to be great and the service has to be great.”
This has translated to mean that Karayan is willing to pay more for optimal ingredients and fish meats, as opposed to taking shortcuts, even if it decreases his profits. For instance, he has high-grade wild cod and haddock delivered from the East Coast, and buys it in such large quantities that, according to him, he runs through ten times the supply that a chain like Lure Fish House does. Not to mention, he understands that his 123 employees need to be happy as well, so he provides those who qualify with 50% of their health insurance benefits. The net effect of this can be observed when customer satisfaction bisects with employee fulfillment, yielding a rare and special ambiance.
As a result, there is a sense of joy in the air, where creativity, led by Karayan, is allowed to flourish and be enjoyed. Besides the fact that he was one of the first to put colored bell peppers on his tacos, or concoct a burrito (Grilled Fish & Shrimp Burrito) that won 18th place in the nation, the well-regarded owner has created his own line of sauces. From the “Sweet Chile Fire,” to the “Caribbean Blaze,” to the “Mean Green Sauce,” and even the “Little Sweet, Lotta Heat,” there is no shortage of sauces that are apt to activate uncharted territories of the palate.
As such, in an era when attention spans are scant and allegiances are cyclical, it’s all the more impressive that Karayan, as he proudly recounts, has won over the steadfast loyalty of his customers.
“We already have guys who come 3 to 5 times a week [at the new Camarillo location], and in Ventura, we have a 90-year-old who drives from Ojai every day for lunch, and sometimes he comes back for dinner to eat the salad and fish tacos. And I said, ‘You Know What? He’ll eat for free on Wednesdays.’”
Karayan has decided that the police officers and firefighters, too, who were instrumental during last year’s Thomas Fire, be given a 20% discount for all their heroic and oftentimes unheralded diligence in the area.
They and the general public now have a second Spencer Makenzie’s hot spot to frequent in Camarillo, which is more than twice the square footage of its predecessor. For larger groups, the Camarillo location also boasts the cozy Parker Room (named after Karayan’s youngest) that will soon be festooned with toy train cars.
As he looks ahead, Karayan has every incentive to expand Spencer Makenzie’s in the Ventura County and beyond, but the family man has his sights set on staying local and doing his best to preserve the caliber of what he offers, and his grass-roots reputation, by staying true to his origins. Part of this includes being the organizer for the annual “Throw Down” cornhole tournament, the biggest of its kind in the world, which will again be hosted by Ventura between August 24-26. A whopping 192 teams will compete for $36,000 in cash prizes.
One can’t go wrong with any of the selections at Spencer Makenzie’s, which include must-haves in appetizers like the wontons (with shrimp/jalapeño and cream cheese) in addition to the cheese curds (bodacious bite-sized mozzarella sticks); any of the esteemed fish tacos or burritos; and classics such as the Parker Burger (melt-in-your-mouth seared ahi tuna steak), Grilled Fish & Vegetable (a juicy and sizeable portion of haddock), as well as the prepossessing shrimp cocktail. Last, but not least, the thick-and-hearty clam chowder comes highly recommended.
Spencer Makenzie’s Ventura location is at 806 E. Thompson Blvd. Ventura, CA 93001 and the Camarillo location is at 311 Carmen Dr. Camarillo, CA 93010
For more information about Spencer Makenzie’s, please visit spencermakenzies.com