If there’s one time of the year when restaurant seafood sales are set to soar, it’s Lent. The six-week period when many Christians forego animal proteins, the Lenten season is a prime opportunity for restaurant operators to experiment with innovative seafood dishes, menu LTOs and get their diners excited about fish and shellfish. Done well, that excitement can spread well beyond Lent, boost sales and create new dining preferences all year long.
Newk’s Eatery knows this all too well. The 80-unit, Jackson, Miss.-based fast-casual chain menued two new seafood salads as LTOs during Lent earlier this year. “The Ahi Tuna Salad and the Shrimp and Avocado Salad were so popular they stayed on the menu after Lent,” says Alan Wright, vice president of marketing and franchise operations. The two products had undergone rigorous testing before they debuted on the menu, and the ahi tuna salad in particular had been a challenge. “We don’t just bring in a new dish because it might be popular elsewhere. We start with an idea and think about how to make the basic offering better by using proprietary ingredients, presentation and through the cooking process,” he says. “With this salad we found our restaurant employees could consistently make a very sushi-grade-looking presentation of that product. But if operations can’t deliver or delivery is inconsistent, you’re not going to have a winning dish.”
Newk’s sees its seafood and vegetarian offerings spike by as much as 15 percent during Lent. “We take the Lenten season very seriously,” says Wright. The chain’s seafood line covers soups and entrées, ranging from sandwiches and pizzas to salads. But guests can also customize their meals by swapping one protein for another. “They’ll often choose to add salmon or shrimp to our Caesar salad, and we have a roundtable of toppings and ingredients that guests can use to customize their sandwich, pizza or salad,” he says.
While LTOs have been a successful strategy to build excitement and menu new products for Newk’s during Lent, at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill there are no particular specials during this time of year. “We sell more seafood during that short window because our seafood is accessible, but we don’t create menu items to go into that period,” says David Goldstein, chief operating officer of the 25-unit restaurant group based in Westlake Village, Calif. “We’d rather stick with the things we do really well than create new ones designed specifically for Lent. We want to create a habit that lasts all year long.” Lessons can be learned from a chain that specializes in seafood, and that monitors and reacts to consumer flavor preferences year-round.
Customization continues to resonate. Everything on Sharky’s menu can be customized according to diners’ preferences. The customizable menu includes burritos, tacos, bowls, pizzas, salads and power plates of mesquite-grilled proteins like shrimp and wild-caught catch of the day.
“Each of the 46 items on the menu can be crafted in such a way that provides a dining experience that meets what individual guests want and how they want it,” he says. Over the past few years, guests have been choosing seafood in greater numbers, and Sharky’s has increased its seafood offerings to feed that demand.
“Ten years ago we offered only two options in seafood, and they represented 4 percent of our sales,” Goldstein says. “Now we offer four seafood options, and they constitute 13 percent, and up to 20 percent of sales at times, depending on time of year and promotion. We’re putting ourselves in a position where the variety of choices helps create demand.”
Stats On Seafood
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute recently commissioned Datassential to conduct research on consumers and seafood consumption. The data, released in July 2016, indicated that diners at traditional fast-food chains, fast-casual chains and casual-dining chains report low levels of satisfaction with the current fish and seafood offerings.
- 54 percent of consumers said they wanted a wider variety of seafood dishes when they dine out—62 percent among Millennials specifically.
- Two-thirds of those surveyed believed fish and seafood was as filling as meat, and 50 percent of consumers who eat more seafood than they did two years ago do so in lieu of eating meat.
- 72 percent of consumers who eat more seafood than two years prior are doing so for health reasons.
Given that 75 percent of American adults identify as Christian according to U.S. Census data, the case for increased seafood options as the Lenten season approaches is a strong one.
Better Believe It
While Lent is a great time to menu new seafood and vegetarian choices, Goldstein cautions that restaurants have to build credibility and trust with their diners for those offerings to be believable. “As an example, for a steakhouse to serve a cauliflower steak as the one sole vegetarian option during Lent may not be believable,” he explains. “At Sharky’s,
10 percent of all our menu items are vegan, so instead of these choices just being offered during Lent, it becomes about options our diners have throughout the year. They can choose organic tofu, mahi-mahi or an animal protein as their center-of-plate, and that flexibility allows us to build credibility throughout the year. As a result, diners are more inclined to approach us and try something new.”
Like Goldstein, Duke Moscrip, owner of Duke’s Chowder House, a restaurant group with six locations in Washington, emphasizes that when it comes to seafood, restaurant operators have to build credibility over a long period. “If you’re just doing something once in a while, you’re not going to get the flavor right. For example, we have seven recipes for salmon on our menu, as well as rockfish, halibut, crab, shrimp and calamari. So when you come to one of our restaurants, there’s no mistaking that credibility.”
Ideas for Innovation
How do you get innovative with seafood offerings, though? “As a commodity board, we’re trying to advocate swapping meat for seafood,” says Jann Dickerson, who heads national accounts at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “We know folks are looking for more seafood when they eat out, and an easy way for restaurants to meet that demand is to take something popular with another protein and swap in fish. For example, Southern-style fried fish instead of chicken, crab noodle soup instead of chicken noodle soup, and surimi-stuffed potato skin instead of bacon.”
Seafood innovation can also be simply a matter of adding intriguing ingredients or elements to a dish. Datassential research indicates that Sriracha has been the fastest growing sauce or flavoring used with fish and shellfish entrées, with a 246 percent increase over the past four years. Pico de gallo, crème fraîche and confit are other fast-growing seafood flavorings. At Bighead’s, a midscale American restaurant in Edmond, Okla., the $12 fish tacos consist of beer-battered cod, napa slaw, Jack and cheddar cheeses, pico de gallo and Sriracha ranch. The giant wild shrimp at Cedar Creek, with two locations in Brea and San Juan Capistrano, Calif., are served with crème fraîche-chive mashed potatoes, while at the fine-dining restaurant Cherche Midi in New York, the lobster scrambled eggs are served with crème fraîche, chives and toast.
The seafood species showing the fastest growth is branzino, which is up 102 percent over the past four years, according to Datassential. Arco Café, a casual-dining Italian restaurant in New York serves grilled branzino in salmoriglio (garlic, lemon and herb) sauce, while at Lincoln Ristorante, also in New York, the Brodetto consists of branzino, scallop, white shrimp, octopus, clams, mussels, chickpeas, couscous and pepperonata.
Fastest Growing Seafood Varieties
Datassential MenuTrends tracks the growth of different seafood items on the menu. These are the 10 that show the most impressive increase in menu mentions over the last four years.
- Branzino +102%
- Seared Salmon +58%
- Beer-Battered Cod +50%
- Albacore Tuna +24%
- Seared Scallop +22%
- Grilled Tilapia +20%
- Crawfish +17%
- Octopus +14%
- Seared Ahi +12%
- Caviar +12%
Greg Rapp, a menu engineer based in Palm Springs, Calif., has worked with many restaurant chains, helping them understand the power of their menu and the profitability of individual items. Given that up to 40 percent of Millennials expect restaurants to only offer sustainable seafood, he advises operators to promote sustainability stories.
“What distinguishes Millennials from other generations is their ardent desire to know about what they’re eating and where it comes from,” he says. “They want the story behind the story. Is the seafood sustainable? Where is it from? How did it get here, and who are the people behind the food? The better the story, the more it will attract the Millennial.”
Rapp says Duke’s Chowder House is an example of an operator that excels when it comes to publicizing stories about its seafood. There are YouTube videos of owner Duke Moscrip in Alaska, where he sources seafood, and blog posts of Moscrip describing fishing in the Copper River with his fishermen, and treating scallop boat captains to lunch at one of his restaurants.
How restaurants describe the seafood dishes on their menu also has a huge impact on diners’ ordering preferences. Among Datassential’s list of “words that sell” as they relate to seafood are: buttery, aromatic, infused, succulent, sustainable, tender, velvety, wood-fired and delicate. The words “wild” and “Alaska” are also important, says Moscrip. “Alaska is known for sustainable seafood and pristine waters, and if you put the word ‘Alaska’ on your menu, the dish is more likely to sell. We’ve seen the data to prove that.”
During Lent, Duke’s features an Eggs Benediction Bene “Duke” with Dungeness Crab on its brunch menu, as well as Alaska Weathervane Scallops Pumpkin Ravioli. Both dishes are advertised on social media and through the chain’s 197,000-member email club.
But while enticing descriptions and a range of choices are good, you don’t want to overdo the options in any particular category on your menu, Rapp cautions. “If you offer more than seven on the decision tree, a person will shut down and pick what they had last time, or what they know is easier,” he says. The best direction with Lenten-inspired seafood is to be flexible, creative—and always flavor-forward.
This article appeared in the 2016 Nov/Dec issue, entitled as: “The Power of Lent”