Although fish sandwiches are more prominent during Lent, these sandwiches can translate into year-round opportunities for operators.
When entrepreneur Lou Groen invented a sandwich featuring a fried, breaded fish fillet in a steamed bun, history was made and the Filet-O-Fish was born. And while the Filet-O-Fish and its many incarnations may be what many American consumers are most familiar with, today’s diner is looking for flavor innovation in even the most familiar places.
As the Lenten season approaches, operators looking to create seasonally appropriate limited-time offers can easily find a sandwich that fits the bill, from the most basic to far more premium offerings. In fact, approximately 30 percent of all hot and cold sandwiches are fish- or seafood-based, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends menus database. Even fried, fish and seafood sandwiches enjoy a healthier perception among consumers and offer a unique option beyond the usual.
When considering how best to create a fish sandwich that’s unique for your operation, the first step, of course, is to consider the type of fish. Though many fish sandwiches do not specify the type of fish used, consumer interest in and demand for transparency and menu specificity offers a strong argument for increased identification. Fish sandwiches can of course be made with a wide variety of species, from the grilled, blackened or fried tilapia in the Fish City Sandwich at Fish City Grill concepts, to the fried haddock in the Fried Fish Sandwich at Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room in Portland, Maine. Cod, flounder and scrod also work very well in these applications. Of course, the po’ boy—the traditional fried seafood sandwich from Louisiana—offers operators the opportunity to feature other options, from shrimp to clam and oyster.
Once the fish is selected, the next critical question is: Bread or batter? Breadings and batters create different experiences, from textural to visual. Beer battering is one of the most common preparations for fish sandwiches. At Rue De L’Espoir in Providence, R.I., the Crispy Fish Sandwich features a beer-battered whitefish served with a carrot and fennel slaw and spicy rémoulade. Beer batters can also offer a premium tie-in to the craft beer movement.
On the other hand, Atria’s, with multiple locations in Pennsylvania, offers a panko-breaded cod. Breading, in fact, can be amped up with the inclusion of herbs and spices. Many operators opt for descriptors such as “encrusted” or “crusted” versus more traditional “breaded” and “battered,” as these tend to suggest a lighter and somewhat healthier option. Butcher & The Boar in Minneapolis takes this a step further with its Fishwich, which features a potato-chip-crusted catfish.
Build options can be as endless as with any other sandwich. Innovation should include breads, sauces and other toppings and spreads. Take the beer-battered fish sandwich at Freemans in New York, with its red onion, watercress and paprika mayonnaise. The El Pesco sandwich at Baco Mercat in Los Angeles showcases crispy shrimp with Sriracha and chive dressing. The British Beer Company based in Portsmouth, N.H., has featured a traditional British “butty” sandwich that combines all the popular elements of a fish and chips entrée—battered cod and french fries —on a brioche bun with Creole tartar sauce. Fish sandwiches work as well with wraps, such as Atlanta-based J.R. Crickets’ Fish Wrap featuring grilled or fried fish in a garlic-herb wrap.
Beyond the traditional fish sandwich and its many variations, operators are rethinking other common sandwich types to incorporate fish and seafood. At the Palm Restaurant in Las Vegas, a BLT sandwich gets a makeover as the Nova Scotia Lobster BLT. In Little Rock, Ark., Brave New Restaurant features the Nontraditional Grilled Cheese, featuring shrimp with Fontina and baby Swiss. Bubba’s Breakaway in Towson, Md., features a Shrimp Cheesesteak Sub, while Tre Sorelle in New York offers a shrimp Parmigiana sandwich.
It’s important to note that while the most traditional fish sandwich in the minds of many U.S. consumers is fried—whether battered, breaded or crusted—many fish sandwiches menued today feature a variety of non-fried options. The quintessential New England lobster roll, which has been enjoying increased popularity in the past few years, is a great example. 5 Napkin Burger, a casual concept in Boston, offers their spin with lobster roll sliders featuring mayonnaise, cucumbers and scallions on potato rolls. Alma Nove, in Hingham, Mass., offers a more upscale lobster panini with dill mayonnaise.
Fish sandwiches don’t even need to be for lunch or dinner, as Gjusta in Los Angeles proves with its breakfast offering of a Smoked Fish & Egg sandwich with labneh, salted cucumber, radishes and herb salad.
Although fish sandwiches are more prominent during the season of Lent, they can easily translate to year-round opportunities for operators. As consumers seek out healthier options and sustainable alternatives, fish sandwiches present fish and seafood in a convenient, relatable and comfortable format for consumers. And from an operational perspective, the ability to innovate and showcase an operation’s creativity is endless.