At Just Hooked, Hagan aims to catch lightning in a bottle — again
Seizing a niche in the restaurant scene along the Delaware beaches can be a daunting task. In such a competitive market, catering to seasonal and year-round patrons doesn’t come easy, but restaurateur Steve Hagan has managed it so successfully with Off the Hook in Bethany Beach that it has merited an expansion into Fenwick Island with his newest project, Just Hooked. At both restaurants, Hagan is finding that success can come easy with the right product and cordial hospitality.
“At Off the Hook,” said Hagan, who got his foot in the door of Rehoboth kitchens more than 15 years ago, “we wanted to put out phenomenal, clean sets. We use local fish that is indigenous to the area.”
With ties to a local farming family as well, Hagan has made sure to pull most of the produce and spices used in his kitchens from area merchants, too.
“It just clicked,” he added of his success at Off the Hook. “We didn’t know it was going to happen the way it did. It all took off, and the locals kept coming back and supporting us.”
That was more than a year ago. Now, he’s already starting to find the same success with Just Hooked, his new Fenwick Island venture, located in the space that was formerly The Quail.
“In Bethany, we offer a casual, refined menu,” he noted. “At Just Hooked, we’re bringing a similar menu, but customers can come in and have a $2 PBR and a $7 burger. There is a casual feel to it. Customers can sit up at the bar and watch the game or enjoy an afternoon on the patio with some live entertainment. There are a few more layers of character, but we’ve kept the same quaint dining experience that you get up in Bethany.”
Just Hooked opened its doors in Fenwick Island’s Sunshine Shopping Center in late May, and customers have been piling in since. Seating for more than 150 patrons allows for a comfortable and social, yet non-invasive, atmosphere.
From a revamped interior equipped with a new bar to decorative photography from local artists lining the walls and a custom-fitted, temperature-controlled, walk-in wine room, Just Hooked provides an entirely new experience for hungry customers. And, as at his flagship project, Off the Hook, diners at Just Hooked can get up-close-and-personal with the chefs fixing meals in the open kitchen.
The aesthetics of the new restaurant can be attributed to Hagan’s business partner, co-owner Kevin Frye.
“I have a great partner in Kevin,” said Hagan. “He brings the construction aspect of everything. He can just sit back and envision this. He’s got that eye, and I bring the restaurant side of it all. We complement each other very well.”
But, as Hagan will attest, repeat business coming through the doors requires more than an attractive dining environment. The slogan at Just Hooked – “Farm-Ocean-Table” – encapsulates Hagan’s dedication to give back to local growers and watermen.
“It’s huge for us to be able to support these farmers and fishermen,” said Hagan. “It’s important for us to help get their names out there. We help give them exposure, and they’re important to us because they offer that local, organic aspect behind a great product.”
Calamari, tuna, mussels and crabcakes are a small dive into the seafood dishes available at Just Hooked. Steaks and chicken plates are among customers’ favorites, too.
Hagan brings with him experience from some of the area’s most successful restaurants, including Big Fish Grill and Catch 54, but he has also found talent in executive chef Matt Cornelius, who assembled Off the Hook’s menu and prepared Just Hooked’s kitchen staff.
“Matt had all the influence at Off the Hook,” said Hagan. “We put a menu out there that we loved and one I knew we could stand behind. We were really happy with it, and when you’re happy about a product, it’s easier to put it on the table and support it. I love Matt’s knowledge of food, and he’s very passionate about what he does. He has been a magnet for quality chefs, too.”
Cornelius, who acquired his culinary skills in Philadelphia, has implemented his talent throughout the region.
“I stared with a classical French influence, which is the base for most cooking styles. Le Bec-Fin,” he said of Philadelphia’s notable French restaurant, “was one of my biggest inspirations. One thing I’ve learned about cooking is there is never just one way to do something. I’ve taken a little here and a little there, and learn to make things my own.”
Working with Hagan has given Cornelius a strong respect for the industry, beyond what he learned in a kitchen.
“Steve has taught and trained me a lot on the business side of running a restaurant and kitchen,” he said. “It really can open your eyes to what you’re producing for customers.”
Cornelius noted that the staff’s relationships with local farmers and fishermen have fueled the plates that find their way to the tables.
“The seafood we get from the Townsends, who run Fishkiller’s, and the produce and herbs brought to our door – you can’t get fresher than that. The quality of this food is amazing.”
While Cornelius has the helm at Off the Hook, it’s his training and influence that have prepared the kitchen in Fenwick, with chefs including Nick Brown.
“I trust in the guys we have working down there,” said Cornelius. “It’s like having three little mini-me’s doing what we do best.”
Both Hagan and Cornelius will take turns this summer season demonstrating their use of local food at the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market, offering recipes using the region’s freshest produce.
“We might bring a little protein or crème fraiche,” said Hagan, “but you can find phenomenal produce right down the road. There’s a lot of stuff that’s great for you and comes from straight out of the earth. It’s great going out there and supporting these local farmers while talking one-on-one with the customer.”
Hagan has cemented friendships with other local restaurant icons, including Jonathan Spivak and Pete Marshall, whose knowledge of wine helped create an extensive collection and complementary wine list at the two locations.
“There was a lot that I learned when taking on a restaurant myself,” Hagan said, “but I’ve got some great friends in the business who have been a big help.”
Still, more than atmosphere and product, he recognized the importance of customer service.
“We make sure that we are a presence to the customer,” said Hagan. “Running a restaurant, you play the numbers game on one side, but hospitality accounts for 100 percent of the way you operate. People have got to want to come into your restaurant. Myself, my chefs and managers are out there making sure customers are having the best experience we can offer.
“There are a lot of friendships that have sparked up over the past year with our clientele,” he added. “They have been there for all the cooking classes, the wine and beer dinners. They were there on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the offseason. The feedback that we received outside of the summer has been the most important thing to us. It gives us pleasure, exposure and energy to continue something like this.
“You have to ask yourself – are you a flash in the pan? When we see these people coming back, it gives you that little bit of reassurance that what you’re doing is working.”
While Off the Hook has already succeeded as a year-round business, Hagan said he’ll have to wait and see about his new project.
“If experience has taught us anything,” he said, “it shows us that if we keep doing what we’re doing, we could very well go year-round in Fenwick. The people are here. If we do the right thing, I think we can catch lightning in a bottle twice. The important thing is that we stay true to what we are doing and not sacrifice quality. Just put one foot in front of the other, and things will work out.”
Just Hooked opens daily at 11:30 a.m., at 1500 Coastal Highway in Fenwick Island. Stop in for late-night happy hour or Sunday deck parties, with live entertainment planned through the weekends. For more information, call (302) 581-0098. Off the Hook is located at 769 Atlantic Ave. in Bethany Beach, between DiFebo’s and Capriotti’s. For more information, call (302) 829-1424.