Restaurateur Michelle Pepping launched her unique seafood spot in August.
Michelle Pepping felt it was time for a reboot after four years of owning and operating the Richardson location of Tasty Tails, a NOLA-style seafood boil spot that grew out of the Central Legacy Plaza food court in Plano.
Pepping wanted to move beyond crawfish boils and fried baskets to serve a wider variety of seafood. Blackened shrimp and cheesy jalapeño grits, old-school Oysters Rockefeller, surf and turf burgers bursting with dynamite shrimp, and poutine with cheese gravy and fresh crab are dishes not easily found north of Uptown, she and her new customers have said.
Pepping rebranded with her own concept by rewriting the menu and remodeling her storefront space in Richardson Heights Village in two weeks’ time. She borrowed her nickname, “Chelle,” from her nephews and reopened as Chelle’s Seafood Kitchen on Aug. 16, 2021.
Opening a restaurant is never an easy feat, but opening a full service seafood restaurant during a pandemic might be the most Herculean undertaking of all. According to a report by Smithsonian Magazine, the availability of seafood has been diminishing since this summer due to a variety of factors, such as a lack of fishers and truck drivers, port congestion, and rising prices as consumer demand keeps swelling.
Pepping has experienced the pricing surge firsthand. The cost of snow, Dungeness, and king crab legs went from $35 to $40 a pound to $50 or $60. Currently, lobster is $10 a pound more than pre-pandemic times, so she installed a lobster tank where the crustaceans can do well swimming around for two or three weeks.
In addition to difficulties finding seafood, tequila and cognac were unavailable due to a glass shortage during the time she was trying to stock the bar so she could sell cocktail pouches to-go, part of ten signature cocktails on the drink menu.
She’s also been experiencing difficulty sourcing to-go containers for about a month. “Every week it’s something different,” she says.
She added a pop-up notice to her website in the spring, informing potential customers that some items might be unavailable or more expensive. Her staff and Yelp page continue to receive complaints anyhow.
Workers, especially cooks, are hard to find, too, which is why Chelle’s is closed for lunch Monday through Thursday. She says she’s pushing to be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week by early next year.
“At the beginning [of the pandemic], I thought it was the unemployment, but I still can’t get applicants,” she says, speaking of the tight labor market. “I honestly don’t know what’s causing it.”
But Pepping keeps adapting. She knows from her project management background to re-evaluate menu prices each month. To find workers, she’s raised the starting salary for kitchen staff to $15 an hour, even though she says that rate still makes it hard to compete with fast food corporations like McDonald’s, which offers college tuition assistance, and Panda Express, which has medical and dental benefits and 401(k) opportunities.
She’s begun cross-training, a common fast-casual practice, where servers are allowed to train for kitchen roles for more hours and money. Of her 26 employees, six can fulfill duties in the front or back of the house.
Despite the ongoing challenges, Pepping’s keeping her practice of quarterly donating 2% of the restaurant’s profits to charity, just as she does as co-owner of Okaeri Cafe, a Japanese comfort food pop-up that’s due to open a brick-and-mortar near Greenville Avenue and Belt Line Road by early next year.
At Chelle’s, Pepping will focus donations to charities that benefit children. The current non-profit is Heart House, which places refugee children in after-school and summer programs. For Thanksgiving, with the help of her customers, she donated nearly 1,000 canned and non-perishable goods to Funky Town Fridge, For Oak Cliff, and White Rock Center of Hope.
In addition to her two restaurants, Pepping is the co-founder of Operation of Humanity, a nonprofit that encourages young professionals to engage with their communities through volunteerism and mentorships.
Perhaps it’s her business sense, her generous nature, or her rich and flavorful food — like the crowd favorite garlic noodles — that’s keeping the customers coming, even though some dishes might be unavailable or slightly more expensive.
Despite the constantly changing hurdles, Pepping is optimistic for next year as Chelle’s Seafood Kitchen will keep allowing her to apply what she’s learned from the corporate world to her own business. She enjoys preparing young workers for post-school life, and, as she says, “Now I get to play in the kitchen more.”
Chelle’s Seafood 100 S. Central Expressway, Suite 21, Richardson. chellesseafoodkitchen.com.