For some people, the idea of Lent conjures images of elderly churchgoers gathered around a common table at the Friday fish fry. For others, it’s an annual spiritual reminder of the Christian story of sacrifice. For the foodservice industry, Lent is a time when demand for seafood sees a big boost from diners who choose to abstain from meat for the six weeks before Easter.
We often hear about the decline of religion in our country, but the most recent U.S. Census data found that about 75 percent of the total adult population identifies themselves as Christian, and 25 percent identify as Catholic. Not all of them actively attend church, nor do they necessarily practice any religious traditions regularly. But according to recent figures from Datassential, 26 percent of consumers polled said they observe Lent. When you combine those numbers with the fact that the observance of Lent alters a major chunk of the nation’s eating habits for several weeks of the year, you get a noticeable annual surge in seafood sales and demand.
Reports from both the retail and foodservice sectors estimate seafood sales jumping by more than 20 percent, such as fast-casual chain Old Carolina Barbecue, whose whitefish dishes all saw a dramatic bump in Lent this year. “Retailers and restaurants alike offer more fish and seafood options and promote them more heavily for Lent,” says Lynsee Fowler, communications manager for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI). “Anecdotal evidence certainly tells us there is an increase in seafood sales due to Lent.”
And the observance of Lent is not something that’s going away, despite the fact that part of America’s religious population is aging. Younger generations are still continuing the tradition of recognizing Lent, often in new ways. And with our nation’s increase in Hispanic and Asian populations come new adherents to Christian traditions—particularly Catholic. As of 2013, one third of all U.S. Catholics were Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center. So those who observe Lent are still plentiful, and they add a fresh interpretation of what Lenten foods can be.
What’s Not on the Plate
Lent refers to the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter during which Christians focus on traditions of self-denial—fasting or giving up something pleasurable—as a way of recognizing Christ’s sacrifice and of showing concern for those who are suffering. The rules of how one observes Lent vary widely: Catholics and Orthodox Christians have specific guidelines, while the different Protestant denominations either don’t observe Lent or leave it up to individuals to decide how they wish to exercise self-denial. Sometimes that means giving up chocolate or alcohol or television. In today’s world, particularly among the younger generation, observing Lent can mean a temporary stop in the use of technology—such as Facebook or their cell phone (gasp!).
But the most common Lenten practice is to give up meat—which was historically considered a luxury—and to eat fish or seafood instead on each Friday of Lent. Datassential found that 41 percent of those surveyed choose to eat fish on Fridays instead of meat (38 percent give up sweets, and 20 percent give up any food they consider “bad”). Of those observing Lent, 74 percent believe that it is important that restaurants offer specials specifically for and during Lent, says Maeve Webster, senior director of Datassential.
Added to the Lenten emphasis on fish is the trend even among non-observers of Lent to eat less meat and more seafood—whether because they are pescatarians or are simply trying to eat more healthfully. More people overall are forgoing meat on Fridays, according to a survey by online food ordering service GrubHub, which found a 20 percent rise in this category of diners from 2011 to 2013. These consumers are all too happy that Lent brings with it more seafood dining options all around.
“Restaurants begin rolling out seasonal menu items a little earlier each year. So now is the time for operators to begin considering new options for the 2015 Lenten season,” says Laura McGuire of Technomic. “In the past, many thought of Lent as only an occasion for seafood-focused restaurants to drive traffic. But every spring, we see an increasing number of independents and chains from other menu categories also participating in Lent.”
With such strong, built-in customer interest, operators should ensure they capitalize by offering appealing Lenten dishes that go beyond the standard fish sticks or baked haddock. Whether serving a new species of fish or finding interesting flavor twists, the opportunity is there to stand out.
The National Fisheries Institute keeps track of what fish species are trending. “We see whitefish like pollock and cod remain very popular during the season of Lent because of their use in items like fish fillet sandwiches and fish sticks. Both are easy and convenient ways for consumers to get fish on Fridays,” says NFI’s Fowler. “Tilapia is another mild, white flaky fish popular during this time, and it has come to be the fourth most consumed fish in America, according to data from NOAA. From a restaurant perspective, especially, tilapia’s affordability and versatility make it very appealing. It can range from blackened to breaded, or used in fish tacos. And it easily takes on the flavor profile of what it’s cooked with, ranging from sweet pineapple salsas to a savory herb butter sauce.”
One of the simplest ways to offer fish is via the ever-popular fish sandwich. For QSRs—whose clientele includes more of both the younger demographic and the growing Hispanic population—variations on the fish sandwich are the key to attracting these groups of Lent customers.
“Operators know that if you don’t have a fish sandwich at Lent, customers will go to someone who does,” says Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) spokesperson Jann Dickerson. She says that not only is it wise to ensure that good seafood menu offerings are available during Lent, but that it’s even wiser to have those offerings throughout the year. “People want to be healthy, they want variety, they want something new and different,” she says. “They want to have control and have a choice in what they eat.” Dickerson cites the fish sandwich as the type of versatile platform that diners and operators can customize.
For its 2015 Lent offerings, Arby’s is bringing back its Reel Big Fillet fish sandwich, featuring wild-caught Alaska pollock. “This fish sandwich has been a successful limited-time offer item for us during Lent season,” says Debbie Domer, director of brand marketing for Arby’s Restaurant Group. “In the spirit of our new #Meatcraft advertising campaign, we like to refer to our fish sandwich as ‘ocean meat,’ which our guests tell us they look forward to each and every Lent season.”
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has worked with Jack In The Box to develop a Lenten fish promotion with up-to-date appeal. “Over the years, they’ve changed the content of their sandwich. Now it’s a one-piece, deep-skinned, flaky and tender Alaska pollock, where it used to contain breaded fish fingers,” says Dickerson. “They’ve found the more upscale potential for a fish sandwich. It’s healthy, different and versatile—and a fish sandwich offers a better profit margin than a burger.” She says QSRs in particular see the fish sandwich as a way to bring in new consumers—like moms who want convenient, kid-friendly yet healthful fish options.
No Sacrifice of Flavor
Just as the actual meaning of Easter sometimes gets lost in a swirl of chocolate bunnies and dyed eggs, the concept of sacrifice doesn’t always stay at the forefront of Lent. So consumers who observe Lent by giving up meat aren’t looking for bland and boring substitutes. In fact, many seek out more indulgent or fun ways to enjoy their seafood.
“Lent is a great time to expose others to new things, and it’s a fun time for us to show off our skills—and build sales,” says Jason Henderson, vice president of product innovation for Captain D’s seafood restaurants. He says the chain has a big following in Southern states, where a strong Christian presence means more Lent sales. “We do attract new customers at Lent. Some people are looking for seafood, and some still want an indulgent meal.”
Captain D’s is steering toward new options, such as more non-fried seafood. They’ve introduced a blackened wild Alaska salmon meal, featuring a teriyaki-glazed salmon. For 2015, he says there will be more than the usual fish and shrimp dishes, with plans for items built around crab or lobster.
The chain has also overhauled its equipment to allow for more grilled items. Its core customers are an older clientele—who are shifting their eating habits to more healthful choices—and families with kids—who are also growing more conscious of better-for-you options like grilled dishes. By menuing grilled fish and other seafoods with LTO flavorings, then allowing diners to choose from a wide variety of side items, Captain D’s maximizes the broad appeal of its Lent offerings.
Shellfish is certainly getting its share of big plays on Lent menus. This past year, Long John Silver’s made a splash with its Norway Lobster Bites promotions during Lent. “We really see a huge variety of species leveraged during this time,” says NFI’s Fowler.
Another avenue is to offer playful twists on seafood to attract broader demographics. Jack In The Box features Alaska Fish Poppers, White Castle includes Fish Nibblers as one of its regular sides, and Long John Silver’s serves Dippin’ Fish Strips in a handheld cardboard container with dipping sauces.
At Bob Evans, some customers still turn to traditional preparations, but new options are reaching new demographics as well. “For Lent, we typically bring in a battered or breaded fried fish such as cod or haddock, and also a breaded fried shrimp,” says Executive Chef Kevin Rabideau. He reports a spike in sales of salmon and whitefish dishes. “We target a blend of demographics. We’ve featured a blackened whitefish with some flavor excitement that may be more geared toward Millennial or Gen Y consumers.”
Similarly, ethnic dishes reach those who want more variety and global influence in their Lenten fish options. Fast-casual chain Panda Express added a new limited-time item for Lent this year: Golden Szechuan Fish, made with North Pacific cod, featuring sugar snap peas and red bell peppers tossed in Szechuan sauce. And the menu at Tropical Smoothie Café now includes a Mojo Fish Taco, which combines tilapia, romaine, cucumber salsa and a spicy-sweet mojo sauce.
Now or Later
Many items offered for Lent are LTOs, and some operators want to keep it that way. There’s the feeling of anticipation for the special season and the gotta-have-it mentality that generates customer interest.
Old Carolina Barbecue’s parent company, Ichor Restaurant Group, says that having limited-time dishes for Lent has been a plus for them. Ichor CEO and Founder Brian Bailey, as quoted in Undercurrent News, says the chain’s Facebook fans count down the days until their Lenten seafood campaign starts. “We know there’s pent-up demand,” says Bailey.
But others feel that pent-up demand means that’s all the more reason to offer and promote creative seafood dishes year-round. McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich started in Ohio as an LTO for Lent back in 1962 to cater to the region’s large Catholic population. The enthusiastic reception it garnered back then has kept it a menu mainstay to this day.
In summary, Technomic’s McGuire highlights the biggest opportunity to leverage Lent offerings: “As with any holiday or event, Lent is a prime opportunity for operators to test potential new permanent seafood offerings because they have a large and captive audience for the span of a few months,” she says. “Some restaurants could afford to expand the number of seafood options year-round to appeal to the growing number of health-conscious diners and pescatarians in the U.S., while others should look for ways to update existing seafood items in order to stay relevant with consumers. Undergoing these initiatives around Lent not only meets the needs of those who follow the season’s dietary restrictions but also provides operators with a large—and hungry—test demographic.”