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The feel-good factor of seafood like this Alaska pollock is multiplied when it’s sustainably certified. Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Sustainable seafood hits the big time with restaurants and consumers

By R. Monroe

When McDonald’s announced that it would begin serving fish certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council at its 14,000 U.S. restaurants earlier this year, the restaurant industry sat up and took notice. The fast food chain is one of the nation’s largest single buyers of fish, and this conspicuous commitment to sustainable seafood sourcing seemed to indicate that a once-niche market had finally made its way into the mainstream.

Indeed, more than a third of consumers polled in 2012 ate sustainable food at least weekly, up from 27 percent two years earlier. “We’ve seen an increase in the marketing of sustainability for two reasons,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of foodservice research firm Technomic. “The first is that chains are taking responsibility for sustainability practices that were already in place, and also because more restaurants and suppliers have taken a step in that direction.”

There is no one definition of “sustainability” as it pertains to marine life, but most experts agree that it is related to species biodiversity (the number of different species in a given habitat), ecosystem integrity, and long-term productivity. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, an industry leader in information on ecologically responsible fishing practices, sustainable seafood comes “from sources, whether fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production without jeopardizing the structure and function of affected ecosystems.”

Industry leaders agree that while environmentally friendly harvesting or fish-farming practices may lead to higher costs, recent research indicates that customers seem willing to pay a premium to eat sustainable seafood. In a 2013 study conducted on behalf of National Public Radio, half of those polled said they were willing to pay more for sustainably caught seafood, and according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), nearly three-quarters of customers surveyed found it important to know the source of the seafood they buy. While sustainable seafood has expanded in retail environments (both Whole Foods and Target have committed to selling only sustainable seafood in their stores), the concept has been slower to catch on in restaurants. In a 2012 Technomic survey, 28 percent of consumers said they looked for products marked as “sustainable” at retail stores, while only 16 percent sought them out on restaurant menus. But that’s changing. In fact, the growing availability and customer demand for responsibly sourced fish make it an increasingly smart business move for operators to source, serve and promote sustainable seafood.

Working with Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, Shaw’s Crab House offers a Sustainable Seafood menu that identifies “best choice” menu items like oysters. Photo courtesy of Shaw’s Crab House.
Some restaurants are relying on well-regarded scientific institutions to create and promote custom sustainability programs. Shaw’s Crab House, an upscale seafood restaurant with units in Chicago and Schaumberg, Ill., partnered with the Shedd Aquarium to implement its sustainable seafood program. Representatives from the aquarium reviewed the restaurant’s existing menu and made suggestions about which seafood options were most sustainable. Shedd experts helped the restaurant develop a special “sustainable seafood” menu, which divides the restaurant’s offerings into green “best choices” and yellow “good alternatives,” according to the Shedd’s Right Bite Program. Twice a year, Shedd scientists visit the restaurant to give staff an in-depth primer on seafood issues, an education that Shaw’s can then pass on to the customer.

According to Steve LaHaie, senior vice president of Shaw’s Crab House, a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises brand, between 25 and 50 guests request the special menu each week. As sustainable seafood gains media attention nationwide, LaHaie expects that demand will continue to grow. With that in mind, making sustainable seafood a priority is a smart business move, he says: “People will be asking for it.”

But it’s not always easy to do the right thing when the definition of sustainability seems to constantly be in flux. “One group will say something is okay and then another group will say it’s not,” LaHaie says. “You have to read and listen and then make decisions — and hope that they’re the right ones.” Shaw’s occasionally features fish that are on Right Bite’s “avoid” list, but only when they’re convinced that a purveyor’s methods are sound. For example, a red snapper fishery has been working with Shedd to improve its fishing practices, so Shaw’s feels comfortable serving their fish. Ultimately, LaHaie says, it’s Shaw’s concern for the future that drives its decisions. “We’ve been serving fish for 30-plus years,” he says, “and we’d like to do what we can to ensure we can serve it for at least 30 more.”

Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen was an early and vocal convert to the sustainable seafood movement. In 1994, he was so inspired by a conversation with an environmental activist that he decided to eschew serving swordfish at Oceana, where he had just been named executive chef. “The owners and partners looked at me like, ‘What’s this? You can’t take swordfish off the menu!’ Same thing with Chilean sea bass: ‘You can’t do that!’,” he recalls. But Moonen did anyway, spurred on by his philosophy: “In order for us to maintain our enjoyment of this planet, we need to take care of it.” In 1998, Moonen helped launch Give Swordfish a Break, an initiative that encouraged chefs to remove the dangerously overharvested swordfish from their menus. Thanks in part to the public pressure that led to new international quotas, the swordfish population returned to sustainable levels in 2002.

Las Vegas restaurant, RM Seafood, Moonen has turned to lesser-known fish such as cobia, a sweet, flavorful fish similar to tilapia. Moonen sources his cobia from a West Virginia fish farm to ensure a sustainable product while keeping costs down. Because customers might be wary of unfamiliar names, Moonen suggests getting staff genuinely excited about unusual offerings — and giving customers an incentive to explore. “Halibut is easy to sell, compared to sturgeon. But I’m putting sturgeon on the menu,” Moonen says. (Canadian tank-farmed sturgeon is one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “best choices.”) “How am I going to make money on it? I’m going to give you a better deal [by trimming the margin].”

Moonen is confident that if chefs and restaurant owners agitate for more sustainable seafood, they’ll get it. The ever-popular farmed salmon, which was on Moonen’s list of fish to avoid for years, is a good example. Salmon farming practices have become much more environmentally friendly since the 1990s, thanks to innovations such as closed-tank farms and plant-based fish feed. These days, Moonen gladly serves farmed salmon, depending on availability. And while Moonen has made a steadfast commitment to sustainable seafood part of his brand, he understands that other restaurateurs might need to take a more balanced approach. Operators working with a lower price-point may not find it economically feasible to serve only sustainable options. “Even so, if everyone today made two menu changes, we’d make a huge step toward a more sustainable future,” Moonen says. “I encourage chefs to be involved. Learn a little bit more about your food. Make changes to your menu. Then celebrate those changes.”

Sustainability is a core attribute in most of Rubio’s menu items, including its signature beer-battered fish taco. “Our guests expect this from us. It’s in our DNA,” says founder Ralph Rubio. Photo courtesy of Rubio’s.
Rubio’s, a fast-casual chain with 196 restaurants throughout the Southwest, sees its use of sustainable seafood as part of a larger commitment to the world’s beaches and oceans. Twenty years ago, that meant sponsoring beach clean-ups; these days, it translates to a menu with 85 percent sustainably sourced seafood.

For its signature fish taco, Rubio’s has relied on Alaska pollock for nearly three decades, according to founder Ralph Rubio. He chose the fish for its flaky texture and mild flavor, which complements the restaurant’s crispy beer batter. There’s an ancillary benefit, too: Alaska pollock, like all fish sourced from the 49th state, is both sustainable-certified and wild-caught. (A longtime leader in responsible fisheries management, Alaska has written sustainable fishing practices into its constitution.) And that matters to consumers. According to ASMI, 80 percent of consumers polled said they’d be more likely to purchase a product featuring the Alaska Seafood logo — one reason Rubio’s now features the logo in its restaurants and on its advertising. The company has made sustainable choices for many years. But it was only in the past decade, as sustainability gained ground, that Rubio’s actively promoted its commitment to responsibly sourced seafood. “Our guests expect this from us,” Rubio says. “It’s in our DNA. It’s what we do. We’ve always wanted to give back to the community.”

Rubio’s has sold more than 160 million Alaska pollock fish tacos since the restaurant was founded in San Diego in 1983, but many of its other menu offerings are certified-sustainable as well. “We source our seafood from all over the world,” Rubio says. They bring in farm-raised shrimp and tilapia from Indonesia, and farm-raised Atlantic salmon from Chile. “But we make a point to go to the source, to visit factories and plants where they’re processing the fish, to make sure they maintain the highest standards.”

A special icon on the menu board lets customers know which options are either certified sustainable or farmed in accordance with the Best Aquaculture Practices, as developed by the non-profit Global Aquaculture Alliance. Rubio’s also makes sure to promote its sustainability practices in its radio and print advertisements. Not only is it good ocean stewardship, Rubio says, it’s a smart, forward-thinking business move. “I’ve got a 21- and a 23-year-old, so I know how young people today are much more conscious about what they eat,” he says. “Restaurants are finding it incumbent on them to be knowledgeable about the quality and provenance of their product, and to be able to communicate that to their guests — because their guests care.”

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