VOL. 11 | NO. 7 | Saturday, February 17, 2018
Couch-Smith Drives Tsunami Nuances Behind the Scenes
Tsunami continues to reinvent itself as it approaches 20 years in business this year and is beginning 2018 with its strongest holiday season on the books.
Colleen Couch-Smith, wife of Tsunami chef Ben Smith, is instrumental to the success and world-class status of the restaurant, bringing an artistic eye, discerning palate and insightful management style to the table.
Couch-Smith, the general manager and a co-owner of Tsunami, grew up in Hernando, Mississippi, and moved to Memphis to study art at Memphis College of Art. She met her husband Ben and joined him and the late Thomas Boggs, founder of Huey’s, in opening the restaurant at 928 S. Cooper St. on July 14, 1998. Offering fresh seafood, locally sourced ingredients and popular small-plate options, Tsunami has maintained a strong presence in the culinary scene.
Colleen Couch-Smith, wife of Tsunami chef Ben Smith, plays the “Swiss army knife” role in every area of Tsunami, from operations to interior design and cocktail conception. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
Restaurant ventures can be risky investments, but Couch-Smith was confident the business would be successful.
“Memphis at that time was at a really exciting crossroads, because we had a lot of corporations that had made Memphis their home base and we were attracting people from other cities,” she said.
When Tsunami opened its doors almost two decades ago, it was the only fine dining restaurant in the up-and-coming Cooper-Young District, she said. “I think that the city was just ready for it.”
After a three-year sabbatical from the daily operations of the restaurant, Couch-Smith has returned with fresh ideas to bolster slightly flagging sales. She was encouraged by business partner Lauren Robinson of Huey’s to overhaul the books as well.
“We also realized that our management structure needed a little bit of changing,” Couch-Smith said. “I think that what I brought to the table invigorated the staff.”
Robinson credits much of the smooth operations to Couch-Smith’s fair and diplomatic treatment of staff and her ability to stay calm under pressure.
In 2016, the couple purchased the building that has housed the restaurant since its inception. Feeling like any upgrades would be a good investment, Couch-Smith took on the task of long overdue renovations, including a redesign of the bar, creating paper and wire lighting fixtures for the dining area, and handmade wallpaper for the restrooms.
It isn’t just fresh ingredients and clean design that keep people coming back to Tsunami. For Couch-Smith, creating a sense of family and feeling of inclusivity among staff is key to running a successful business.
“While we place a tremendous amount of value on our customers, our staff kind of comes a little bit before that,” she said. “If they don’t feel welcome and at home, like they matter, they’re never going to be able to take care of my guests the way I want my guests to feel.”
Robinson said Couch-Smith’s attention to detail and commitment to go above and beyond for the customer has led to the restaurant’s strong following and continued success.
“She and Ben started this together, but she’s been sort of in the background,” Robinson said. “She’s very disciplined, making sure the day-to-day things that aren’t glamorous get taken care of.”
Tsunami has further benefited from social media and the reservation app, Open Table.
“New Year’s Eve was the biggest we’ve had,” Ben Smith said.
He points to Instagram and Open Table as generating some of the increase in revenue, which has allowed the restaurant to reach a younger demographic.
The owners also worked with local advertising firm DCA (Doug Carpenter + Associates) last year to create marketing strategies aimed at keeping Tsunami on the radar.
“We wanted to make Tsunami more top-of-mind to people,” Robinson said. “People [said] ‘This is so great, we forgot about Tsunami.’”
For first-time customers, Couch-Smith recommends the small plates, which are made with seasonal ingredients.
“To me, those are always the most interesting dishes available,” she said. “Ben’s talents, and certainly the talents of our guys in the kitchen, are highlighted in those dishes.”
Couch-Smith has revamped the restaurant’s wine offerings and selects a featured cocktail each week, too.
“She has an amazing palette,” Ben said. “She looks at the menu and sees relevance, and tries to tie that in. She absolutely has influence over the menu.”
The couple is now preparing for the restaurant’s 20th anniversary party in July. While no plans are definite, Couch-Smith hints at the possibility of throwing one of her notorious dance parties. She is also working on a solo gallery showing of her paper artwork to be held in Nashville this September.