Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Lenten Opportunities A changing profile of Lent observers translates into growth opportunities for menu upgrades

Taco John’s boosts sales with a fish taco that combines global flair with Lenten tradition.

Mexican-influenced treatments like this South-of-the-Border Salmon Bowl bring seafood items up to date and appeal to a growing Hispanic demographic.
As Americans prepared for the first U.S. visit of Pope Francis in September, restaurant operators were preparing for their first-quarter promotions geared to the season of Lent.

The six-week period of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday serves as a reminder of the Christian story of sacrifice. It also serves as a growing opportunity for operators. Historically, Lenten observers give up meat either during the whole six weeks or on Fridays during Lent. In the industry, this results in a predictable bump in seafood consumption. In fact, thanks to Lent, restaurant operators and seafood suppliers alike can book 25 percent or more of their annual seafood sales in the first quarter, which marks a positive start to the year and a boon for post-holiday sales that can often be sluggish depending on the economy and weather.

The Lenten audience is significant: The United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, according to the Pew Research Center. In a study of 35,000 American adults, roughly one in five say their primary religious affiliation is with the Catholic Church. And then there’s the growing Latino population, a demographic that claims Catholicism as its religion and cultural touchstone. These numbers point to opportunity, where a large group of diners is actively seeking out seafood options. To succeed here, the same tenets apply that inform all of modern foodservice—flavor innovation brings them through the door.

Marketing Matters
Promoting seafood during Lent is a necessity for restaurant operators, says Lizzy Freier, menu analysis editor for Technomic. “It’s obviously easy for seafood-focused concepts to promote during Lent, because seafood is the brunt of their business. Non-seafood restaurants, and especially something like a QSR burger chain, may typically be avoided by consumers on Fridays during Lent,” says Freier. Approximately 20 percent of adults surveyed by Technomic said they eat more seafood during Lent. Non-seafood chains such as Steak ’n Shake, Quiznos, Burger King, Red Robin, Wendy’s and Domino’s have added Lenten promotions in the past few years to capitalize on potential sales.

Red Robin unveiled a Wild Pacific Crab Cake Burger LTO for Lent earlier this year, the burger chain’s first seafood offering. The crab cake was made with blue and Pacific snow crab and topped with arugula, roasted garlic aïoli, oven-roasted tomatoes, lettuce, Parmesan cheese and served on a caramelized ciabatta bun. To create additional awareness around the chain’s Lenten promotion, the brand sent an invitation to Pope Francis, inviting him to eat at a Red Robin restaurant in the United States during Lent. If the pope accepted the offer, all guests would be treated to a free Wild Pacific Crab Cake Burger on the remaining Fridays of Lent. While the Pope did not set foot in the United States until September, the chain’s first Lent LTO was well received by guests, according to Lee Dolan, Red Robin’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

Restaurants are realizing Lent is an opportunity they don’t want to miss, says restaurant consultant Ray Martin, who also serves as corporate executive chef at Wahoo’s Fish Taco and recently opened Noodle Fresh Express, a QSR ramen noodle fusion concept in Denver. Martin, a 40-year restaurant industry veteran, knows restaurants, and in particular, seafood. His resume includes Consolidated Restaurant Operations and Carlos Murphy’s, The Original Fish Co., The Cheesecake Factory and BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. “It’s a great time—even non-religious people are aware of it because everyone else is offering Lenten promotions,” says Martin. “Whether it’s a Red Lobster or Applebee’s promotion, it makes you aware of Lent. Other concepts are taking that marketing opportunity as well. If they don’t do anything, their sales go down on Fridays, which is normally a big day for a restaurant. Everyone is realizing Lent is an opportunity,” he says.

Martin, a Catholic who observes the religious practice, notes that Lent isn’t just about eating seafood—chains could promote other non-meat items such as vegetables—but switching to seafood is what the religious observation has evolved into. Wahoo’s markets its current seafood, vegetable and tofu menu items for Lent instead of adding an LTO. The Santa Ana, Calif.-based chain uses table tents and posters in stores starting in mid-January to build excitement leading up to Lent, which, in 2016, begins with Ash Wednesday on February 10, a full week earlier than in 2015. The chain realizes a same-store sales increase of approximately 10 percent or more during Lent, adds Martin.

Not surprisingly, seafood entrées debut twice as often in February and March as they do throughout the rest of the year, notes research firm Datassential. The term “seafood entrée” represented 11.5 percent of new menu items/LTOs in February and 10.7 percent in March, according to Datassential’s Insider database. The term “fish sandwich” is 12 times more likely to appear on a menu in February than any other month of the year.

Chains are introducing more Lent-friendly options. Red Robin’s first LTO seafood offering was this Wild Pacific Crab Cake Burger.

Growing Demographic
The Datassential research points to a void in operators introducing items to serve a growing Hispanic consumer base within Lent observers. The share of U.S. Catholics who are Hispanic has grown from 29 percent in 2007 to 34 percent in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, while the percentage of all U.S. adults who are Hispanic has grown from 12 to 15 percent. The share of Catholics who are Hispanic is likely to continue to grow; among Catholic Millennials, more are Hispanic (46 percent) than white (43 percent).

Incorporating big, fresh flavors from south of the border is a great way for operators to introduce customers to seafood, especially during Lent, says Martin. “Craveability is what you’re shooting for. You want customers to remember where they ate their product,” he says. “Restaurants are acknowledging that it’s a time to reintroduce, re-emphasize or market.”

Midwest QSR chain Culver’s aims to grab a piece of the Hispanic customer base with “Para las Familias” [for families], a TV commercial launched in early September. While fried seafood comprises 15 percent of the chain’s menu mix during Lent, it does see opportunity for more healthful fare in the future, says David Stidham, Culver’s vice president of marketing. The chain is conducting R&D on how Millennials view trends, and is testing baked and grilled items to see if the company can execute them chain-wide. “We are doing a lot of research to make sure we’re appealing to all the different demographics and ethnic groups in our markets,” says Stidham.

Restaurants often gear seafood items toward traditional flavors and preparations that appeal to Boomers, including breaded and battered, according to Datassential’s Scores database of 265 seafood entrée LTOs over the past year. Based on a score of 100, purchase intent for Boomers is 70, while for Gen-Xers it is 57 and Millennials it’s 45. However, once seafood is served in a taco or a modern flavor is added, it becomes a Millennial-skewing dish, says Jack Li, managing director at Datassential. “There’s a big opportunity for the industry to bring new, modernized seafood applications to the menu,” he adds.

Fast-casual chain McAlister’s Deli is looking at those very opportunities to appeal to Hispanic Millennials, and is transitioning its Lent items to new flavors. In 2015, the fast-casual chain promoted New Orleans Cajun Shrimp with a rémoulade sauce for Lent, and for 2016, is testing Asian and Mediterranean flavor options that also incorporate shrimp, says Donna Josephson, vice president of global marketing. McAlister’s is testing Mediterranean pita, pasta and salad dishes with shrimp, as well as a Vietnamese banh mi with pickled vegetables and shrimp in an Asian sauce.

“We’re looking at those flavors because they’re popular and on trend with everyone,” says Josephson. “Our concern is whether they are the right items during that time of year when it’s cold in many places.”

While Long John Silver’s relies heavily on its core fried items, it also is looking at flavors that appeal to younger Asian and Hispanic audiences. “We have an opportunity to focus on the younger consumer. Those consumers are much more open to other flavors and willing to try different things. We’ll look at that as we develop our strategy for the future,” says Peter Czizek, vice president of culinary innovation for Long John Silver’s.

Beyond battered fish: A zesty pimento cheese shrimp sandwich offers a modern variation on a favorite seafood option.

Flavor Comes First
While operators are wise to consider new seafood options during Lent, they risk alienating a significant portion of their audience if they ditch fried seafood. Fried seafood is a staple item for concepts such as Long John Silver’s, Culver’s and Taco John’s, and is always popular during Lent, says Technomic’s Freier. This year’s trend among U.S. operators showed an increase in branded beer-battered fish items, including Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s Redhook Beer-Battered Cod Fish Sandwich, Shari’s Restaurants’ Alaskan Amber Beer-Battered Fish & Chips and Claddagh Irish Pub’s Guinness-Battered Shrimp & Fries.

Mexican-influenced QSR Taco John’s Lent offering is a fish taco that appeals to both a Hispanic and mainstream customer base. The taco is made with a fried pollock fillet wrapped in a flour tortilla, topped with lettuce, ranch dressing and fajita sour cream, and served with a fresh lime wedge for a suggested $2.19. “It’s been really popular with our guests—those who are looking to eat seafood during Lent, and people who want fish for a change,” says Bob Karisny, vice president of menu strategy and innovation. The Lent fish taco promotion was introduced four years ago and gives customers a seasonal feel that they look forward to, much like a Starbucks customer looks forward to the Pumpkin Spice Latte in the fall, says Karisny.

Next year’s promotion will include a Shrimp Street Taco, based off a popular shredded Beef and Chicken Street Taco that debuted last year, says Karisny. The shrimp taco will be made with breaded shrimp and served in a corn and wheat flour tortilla, topped with lettuce, cabbage, pico de gallo and a garlic-lime sauce. The fish taco will start the Lenten promo and the Shrimp Street Taco will debut toward the end of Lent, followed by a rollout of the Beef and Chicken Street Tacos. The chain’s Lent promotion is supported by a full marketing program, including digital, TV and radio ads and POP materials three weeks prior to Lent.

Taco John’s serves a wide variety of guests, notes Karisny, but there are ingredients that appeal specifically to Hispanic customers. “The lime is a good example; we know the folks who are eating fish tacos expect the lime,” he says. The fajita sour cream in the fish taco has some “kick” to it, he adds. Taco John’s provides a salsa bar that gives flexibility to flavors. “We build [Mexican-influenced] ingredients in, but at end of the day, we want a great-tasting menu item,” says Karisny.

Long John Silver’s offered a Fish & Shrimp Basket for $3.99 for its Lent promotion this year, and the chain sold more than 1.5 million pounds of pollock, cod and shrimp during that time. Ash Wednesday is the chain’s busiest day, with sales typically increasing 125 percent on that one day, according to Czizek. Long John Silver’s core product is a fried Alaska pollock fillet, and it’s considering a beer-battered product as well as Alaska cod for the 2016 promotion. The company’s consumer research also shows a desire for Southern-style blackened flavors, adds Czizek.

Culver’s has menued North Atlantic cod from the Barents Sea as a Lent promotion for 30 years, and it’s by far the operation’s best-seller, says Stidham. The chain promotes cod during Lent with a TV spot, “Hand-Battered Perfection.” The promo has led to cod sales skyrocketing and has garnered a loyal customer following for the product, which is fried and served as a dinner, in a basket and as a sandwich. The Lent seafood menu items, which also include walleye and jumbo shrimp, represent 15 percent of Culver’s total menu mix, and the chain doubles its seafood sales during the promotion.

Operators who focus on how best to fulfill the needs of the changing Lenten consumer base will find plenty of options and opportunities.

Lent: Outside the Box

By Chef John Livera of Creative Food Solutions 

Lent is the single most important time for the seafood industry and the perfect time of year to jump out of the safe-to-menu box and use this great source of protein to deliver exciting new flavors, species and cuts.

Creativity in seafood can come in many forms, literally. I like thinking beyond the common 6-oz. fillet to the whole fish and its utilization. Take salmon for instance: Consider removing the skin and trimming the bottom portion of the side about 1 to 1½ inches along the bottom. (This is typically called the belly and can get overcooked when used as part of a fillet portion.) Cut into 1-inch squares and dust with your favorite spice blend, mixed with a bit of flour. Flash-fry and you have a great salad topper—“Salmon Belly Croutons”—or a fun appetizer with a choice of dipping sauces. The skin can also make a great snack or garnish. Spread the skin out on parchment, sprinkle with sea salt and dust both sides with a cornstarch and flour mixture. Let the coated skin air-dry, cut it into strips and pop in a fryer until crispy.

Seafood creativity can also come from using a popular species in a new way. Consumers, for the most part, are intimidated by seafood—especially by species they have not tried—so use comfort species in alternative ways. Consider fluke or flounder—they’re typically battered, breaded or stuffed. Fluke, because of its light texture and flavor, can be an amazing carrier of heightened flavor. Consider using it as a tartare, adding a hint of citrus juice and spice just before serving. Also consider cod, a delicious, sturdy, white-fleshed fish. Codfish is very versatile and can stand up to some very hearty sauces; consider pairing with some creative bases like a classic Basquaise or a broth of fennel, tomato, white wine and a dash of cayenne.

Creativity in seafood can also come by way of introduction of different and interesting species. Look into up-trending species that are available year-round, like tilapia or snapper/drum. Both are light and flaky and can carry flavors perfectly.

No matter what your menu or skill level in the kitchen, Lent is a perfect time to experiment and educate your patrons about new and interesting seafood dishes at a time when they are most receptive.

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