Photos by Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the family behind the burgeoning Surf’s Up franchise, but tenacity, patience and flexibility helped co-founders and longtime Oak Park residents, Denise and Eric Roy achieve a decade in business. The franchise, with 15 locations, celebrated its milestone anniversary with a festive balloon display and fried shrimp specials on Jan. 20 at Surf’s Up — Oak Park, 6427 W. North Ave.

“Our goal is to build generational wealth for ourselves and for the families of our franchisees,” said Denise Roy. “The best part of all of this is that we have been able to help families make it — we have created opportunities for people to improve their circumstances.”

Initially Denise Roy and her husband, who has a background in accounting, contemplated purchasing a pre-existing Chicago franchise, but came to believe they could build a business on their own relying on the recipes for catfish, shrimp and crab legs Ray would make to meet her husband’s “particular tastes.” In addition to settling on the catchy name “Surf’s Up,” adding lobster, green tomatoes, and biscuits, gave the blossoming business a trio of fried menu items that help to differentiate it from other existing seafood joints.

“Our first location in Hillside opened in 2012 and closed pretty quickly,” said Roy. “People came from everywhere despite the fact we opened during a huge blizzard. After that we were really busy, but when the Menards next door closed, we were in a ghost town.”

The closure didn’t keep the Roy’s down for long. They found a location on Madison Street in Chicago and opened just over a year later and the first Surf’s Up franchise arrived in Maywood soon after. Just as business was picking up steam at the Chicago location, a neighborhood resident expressed interest in purchasing the business. The couple sold their Chicago location and took time to get their business in order to protect their emerging brand. 

Family member, Vanetta Roy opened Surf’s Up — South Shore to complement the Maywood location before the founders opened Surf’s Up — Oak Park in 2018. Business started booming after their catfish and fried green tomatoes were featured on Chicago’s Best TV show in 2019. 

“We knew we would be a hit on the show and once it aired, we really had something going,” said Roy. “And then the pandemic hit. Things slowed down a lot, but my mother kept telling me not to close and little-by-little things started to pick up.”

In fact, at a time when restaurants were struggling most, Surf’s Up franchises became more popular than ever — just in time to mark their 10th anniversary, the brand expanded by10 locations including one in Huntsville, Alabama. Roy admits it has been difficult to watch restaurants falter over the past two years, but credits Surf’s Up expansion to timing and the nature of their business. When restaurants were named among essential business, the Surf’s Up franchise appealed to people who had been adversely impacted by the pandemic. People were looking for jobs they could control, and landlords became more open to negotiating rent rates because of increasing vacancies. As a result, owning a Surf’s Up became a viable and more affordable option for potential franchisees. It also helped that historically approximately 70% of Surf’s Up’s business was carryout based.

The model uniquely positioned the Surf’s Up brand to thrive during the pandemic and the Oak Park location morphed into the corporate headquarters and serves as a training hub for franchise owners and employees. Today the Surf’s Up spice blend and signature remoulade sauce are both trademarked, and the business is licensed in all 50 states.

Despite all this rapid growth, Roy has kept a level head. Her husband can often be found tidying up the storefront and her team of loyal employees are known for friendly service and long tenures.

Chef Michael Givens has been with Surf’s Up for the full decade it has been in existence and has spent four years running the kitchen at the Oak Park location. He is focused, unflappable and particularly proud of his own contribution to the seafood focused menu. Givens is the creator of “Da Bomb” sandwich; the popular offering features both shrimp and lobster with lettuce, tomato, mayo and pickles served on a buttery brioche bun. 

Surf’s Up continues to tailor its menu to suit local tastes and Roy looks forward to small things like adding genuine fish and chips to the menu and big things like “building a Surf’s Up location from the ground up.” In the meantime, Roy remains focused on hiring passionate people and giving them room to grow right along with the franchise.

“I look forward to the day when Surf’s Up is recognized as a national brand,” said Roy. “Our son used to say Surf’s Up was like the little brother he never wanted, but now that he is grown, he sees the legacy we are trying to build here.”

Now that’s something to celebrate.

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