Sep 22, 2023

Levee Repairs Challenge a Popular Seafood Restaurant to Sink or Swim

Scott’s Seafood on the River Stays Afloat by Staying Clever

By Ed Goldman

President Ronald Reagan had nothing on restaurateur Alan Irvine. 

In 1987, Reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of Russia’s Communist Party, “Tear down this wall!”

Edgy Cartoon

Alan Irvine at Scott’s Seafood by the River. Photo by Edgy.

Reagan was referring to the Berlin Wall, which had girdled West Berlin since 1961. Irvine—co-owner with his wife Sigrid of Scott’s Seafood on the River in Sacramento—is patiently waiting for a different wall, one assembled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last April, to be dismantled. It blocks his customers’ views of California’s longest river, the Sacramento, and has had a ruinous effect on the outdoor-events side of his business.

The Corps built the wall as part of its project to shore up levees along the sparkling waterway, which was a vista the restaurant offered diners and more important, attendees at weddings, retirements, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, charity fundraisers and conferences. 

Since the wall’s been up, the Scotland-born Irvine (where it’s pronounced Irvin) estimates he’s lost 80 percent of his events business. Adding insult to penury, the project has forced the restaurant’s customers to pay for valet parking since the Corps took over all of the available spaces running a couple hundred yards along the top of the levee. “Even our Happy Hour business has suffered,” Irvine says. “Who wants to pay $8 to park so they can save a few dollars on hors d’oeuvres?” 

That $8 figure is a deal Irvine struck with his landlord, the Westin Hotel, which sits next door on the same parcel. “The hotel lowered the parking rate, which it controls, from $12,” Irvine acknowledges. “But it’s still a lot to pay. And it’s mandatory unless you want to park down the hill somewhere in the neighborhood and trudge up to our place.”

Scott’s has the best and freshest seafood in Northern California (its clam chowder, Petrale sole and variety of oysters are particular fan faves). It’s also a bit of a family affair for Alan and Sigrid. Their elder son Iain, 46, is the restaurant’s general manager. His younger brother, Tristan, 39, is the place’s social media manager (he’s also a multi-talented graphic artist who creates ads and videos for Scott’s, as well as having his own business as a VJ and designer). Other members of the Irvine clan work at Scott’s in event planning and administration.

Alan and Sigrid Irvine became sole owners of Scott’s about five years ago. Before then, they’d been in a lengthy relationship with a partner (who died last year).

Over a recent lunch at Scott’s—clam chowder and fried oysters, my two favorite components of the food chain—Irvine talks about his decades in the restaurant business, a field he wandered into despite earning an undergraduate degree in printmaking from the Glasgow School of Art (“I’m one of the very few men who could ask a woman to come up to his place to see his etchings and actually had etchings,” he says with a roguish grin).

He came to the U.S. to obtain a master’s degree from the San Francisco Arts Institute but a busted early marriage saw him leave school and go to work in On the QT, a restaurant largely patronized by the city’s gay community. “I was there about three years, until it closed,” he says. “But in that time I went from being a kitchen manager to the restaurant’s general manager.” It was also where he met his wife Sigrid. 

From there, the now-couple moved to San Jose so Alan could work at Arthur J’s, another restaurant owned by the now-late On the QT. “It was the only time in my experience I was the one-and-only manager,” he recalls, “because there wasn’t enough money to pay for additional ones. I worked 18 hours a day. The only time I saw my wife and kid”—Iain had by now made his debut—”was when they came in for dinner.” After another two years managing one of the stores in the Charlie Brown’s Prime Steak House chain, “You might say I was ‘poached’ by Scott’s Seafood in 1980.” He and Sigrid moved back to San Francisco where Irvine worked his way up to being operations manager. “I ran four of the restaurants in the franchise,” he says, adding with a laugh, “for about five minutes.”

When he and Sigrid became partners in the Scott’s enterprise, they bought the name for their own version of the restaurant, which they operated for 21 years in Sacramento at a strip mall called Loehmann’s Plaza. (This is when I first met Irvine, just in case you’re keeping score at home.) The closure of that store and move to the riverfront came shortly thereafter.

To maintain and grow Scott’s Seafood on the River while dealing with the stop-and-start vagaries of the Army Corps project—which Irvine says “I recognize and respect will make the levees safe for lives and property”—the restaurateur has been nothing less than resourceful. 

Before the scenery-disrupting wall went up, Irvine contracted with the highly regarded regional artist Stephanie Taylor to design and execute a multi-paneled mural of fish paintings and proverbs on a cerulean backdrop which has become a draw for customers and art afficionados. (In fact, it’s probably every bit as attractive as the original view.) He’s written guest editorials for the Sacramento Business Journal, Outword (an influential online publication targeting gay readers) and other outlets about the project but also his commitment, as a corporate neighbor, to doing the right thing even when it comes at a high cost.

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Local media have responded: Kitty O’Neal, the popular host of the region’s number one radio station, KFBK, wrote and delivered a laudatory story on Irvine’s dilemma and ethical stance. And a local affiliate of CBS-News sent out a camera crew and reporter to document the challenge and highlight the artwork.

As I write this, the Army Corps has taken a pause in its work—which continues to take a huge bite out of Irvine’s income.

“The only constant in this business is change,” Irvine tells me as we wrap up our lunch chat. “I have to focus on the positive—like the fact that  we’re now welcoming third- and fourth-generation customers to Scott’s. Not even a wall can keep out loyalty.”

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).