Imagine opening a restaurant in 2009 and just four years later, receiving a call from the legendary Guy Fieri saying you’ve been selected to be on the Food Network’s hit show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” That’s exactly what happened at DJ’s Clam Shack in 2013, garnering international notoriety for the restaurant while bolstering Key West’s claim as one of the nation’s top food destinations.
“I would bet we get about 150 people per day who say they first saw us on the show or heard about us from that first episode,” said DJ’s owner Doug Bell, who, along with his partner Jeff Gagnon, now boast five locations in the U.S.
But DJ’s moment in the spotlight would not be short-lived. In March of this year, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives returned to DJ’s to film a second installment, highlighting the establishment’s commitment to homemade ingredients, which are essential to their famous lobster rolls, clam chowder and conch fritters.
“For us, the show has been the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Bell. “They do ask that you meet certain demands, such as giving up recipes. But it was a no-brainer. I’ve always watched the show and every restaurant in the country wants to be on it.”
However, Bell cautions, the overnight exposure and notoriety from television can often create an unexpected demand that many restaurant owners are not prepared to embrace.
“Two things happen once you are featured on the show. You either take off with success or you fail,” said Bell. “You get hit with this incredible volume and it’s great. But if you don’t adjust to the added demand, your quality begins to suffer.”
Bell says he and Gagnon had to adjust their menu after they were first featured in 2013. The pair, for example, condensed their menu, which used to include items like oysters on the half shell.
“The fame from the show is constant,” said Bell. “It’s a snowball that starts and keeps rolling and rolling. You can’t expect to have that kind of change and then be shucking oysters while people are lined up down the street waiting for service.”
Bell says DJ’s secret to success remains consistent: homemade, casual seafood made from scratch that calls for fresh ingredients.
“When we first opened, we were the first in town to introduce a lobster roll,” said Bell. “No one knew what it was around here except for the New Englanders and tourists from that area. But it really took off with the locals and tourists and we knew we had something special. We had this clam shack like you would find in Maine or New Hampshire and people could enjoy it right here in Key West.”
If the expansion of DJ’s Clam Shack is any indication, Bell’s assertion of “something special” could be a modest understatement. Today, DJ’s Clam Shack has two Florida locations, and three franchised locales in Long Island, New York. Their most recent installment on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives can be found on the Food Network’s website.