10 Seafood trends to hook customers
Limited-service restaurants look to on-trend seafood to satisfy consumer demands.
Fast casual and quick service operators have started menuing more creative seafood selections in order to cater to a growing number of consumers seeking high quality, healthful fare prepared rapidly. According to research firm Technomic, 51 percent of consumers who eat seafood at least once a month say they would like more restaurants to offer a wider variety of seafood dishes. As a result, operators are trying to satisfy this growing demand while offering selections which appeal to an increasingly adventurous customer base.
The following are 10 seafood related trends that fast casual and quick service operators are using to hook customers:
From fine to fast
Some types of seafood have migrated from being a white-tablecloth delicacy to a fast casual standard. “The accessibility and availability of seafood has never been better than it is now,” says Fred LeFranc, founding partner at Results Thru Strategy, a consultancy in Charlotte, North Carolina. “What was once considered a luxury is now available to anyone.”
Lobster, for example, is available in sandwiches at regional chains such as Boston-based Luke’s Lobster and national operators like Quiznos. Huntington Beach, California-based Slapfish also features lobster in several sandwiches, such as Clobster Grilled Cheese, which is half crab and half lobster, Surf n Turf Lobster Burger, and Lobster Grinder.
Sushi, once considered exotic, is now widely available throughout the U.S. Yo! Sushi recently opened a New York location where customers can grab their selections from a conveyor belt. “Sushi is ubiquitous,” LeFranc says. Even non-sushi concepts such as Dynomite Burgers, with three locations in Cleveland, offers everything from a standard California roll to the Dynomite roll, which is blackened white tuna, carrot, avocado, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño, and spicy mayo.
Poke, the Hawaiian dish containing uncooked fish, grains, vegetables and seasonings, is another raw presentation that is making its way into the fast casual segment. At Santa Monica, California-based Sweetfin Poké guests can customize their poke bowls by choosing yellowfin tuna, salmon, snapper or albacore, and then select the rice, vegetables and sauces. At Wisefish Poké in New York City, customers can build their own rice or zucchini noodle bowls with ahi tuna or salmon, and add sauces such as wasabi shoyu and citrus ponzu.
Healthful eating at bargain prices
Higher availability means lower costs. “The options for customers to eat healthy on a budget are a lot more plentiful,” says Michael Phillips, the founder of Coconut’s Fish Cafe in Reno, Nevada. “In the olden days you had to pay a lot more for it.” Coconut’s offers ono, mahi-mahi, ahi and other fish in tacos, salads and other preparations. Phillips says the goal is to offer healthful seafood at a price point that is competitive. “Everything we serve is fresh and made from scratch in a fast casual setting,” he says.
Consumers also want flavor. Nashville, Tennessee-based Captain D’s offers the Blackened Tilapia Meal, flavored with Cajun spices and served with two sides, rice and a breadstick, and the Crab Topped Tilapia Meal, served with two sides and a breadstick. Jason Henderson, vice president of product innovation, says the tilapia with the zesty Cajun spices is quite popular. “White fish is very adaptable,” he says. “You can put on different flavors, and it’s flaky and firm in texture.”
For Lent this year Louisville, Kentucky-based Long John Silver’s featured a choice of Beer Battered Wild Alaskan Cod or the Classic Battered Wild Alaskan Cod. “Consumers want more flavor on their fish and different flavors,” says Katie Rooprai, vice president of brand marketing. The flavor selection helped boost sales, and cod sales were up compared to Lent last year.
According to Technomic, more than half (59 percent) of consumers eat meals without meat at least weekly. Many chains offer seafood and meatless options on the regular menus and also for limited time options. In March, San Jose, California-based Togo’s Eateries brought back its popular Lemon Pepper Tuna Sandwich made with 100 percent albacore tuna seasoned with lemon and cracked black pepper, and then hand mixed with diced celery, red onions and light mayonnaise. Atlanta-based Church’s Chicken brought back Lemon-Seasoned Butterfly Shrimp and Crispy Fish. Guests chose marinated shrimp or white fish filets, fried golden brown and finished with a lemon-herb seasoning.
Remaking old favorites
Shrimp is being offered in a variety of ways now beyond popcorn or fried options, and is showing up increasingly in salads, sandwiches, pasta, kabobs and even on pizza, says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters in Arlington, Vermont. “Shrimp certainly enjoys a healthy perception and is familiar enough to be comfortable to many consumers but it can be applied to a wide variety of formats and world cuisines.”
Webster adds that shrimp is showing up on menus in Mexican restaurants that are moving away from the oversized burritos and more towards authentic foods. “Seafood is being used more broadly,” she says. “Much of what is being menued is shrimp and salmon, but it’s opening the door for other seafood to be used in burritos, tacos, quesadillas and other formats.”
Another fish that is making its way from fine dining to fast casual is tuna. “Tuna is more accessible,” says Eric Standalone, chef and owner of En Su Boca in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s easy to buy frozen, perfectly portioned pieces of tuna, and it’s still affordable.”
Denver-based Larkburger offers a Tuna Burger, which combines grilled ahi tuna steak, lettuce, tomato, onion, fresh cilantro and wasabi-ginger dressing. Tony Friel, director of culinary operations and development, says the 4-ounce tuna portion contains 120 calories, 26 grams of protein and only one gram of fat. “People are looking at the nutritional value of their food,” he says.
Consider the source
Meanwhile, consumers are paying attention to whether the seafood is from a sustainable source. Larkburger uses yellowfin tuna that is certified sustainable by Friend of the Sea. “There’s more attention to ingredients than there has been in decades,” Friel says. “I can see it when I talk with my suppliers and vendors.”
Increasingly, seafood suppliers are seeking to offer sustainable options by ensuring that water sources remain pristine, local fish are not contaminated and area residents benefit from the fish production. They are also employing growing processes that help keep the price of premium, sustainably raised seafood down.
Operators also are looking at farmed seafood to answer the demand for sustainable seafood. According to FishChoice, there have been significant advances in both technology and handling techniques that preserve nutrition and quality of frozen seafood, so it has positive impacts on sustainability, including a lower carbon footprint of distribution by ground or shipping cargo as opposed to air freight.
One way to keep costs down is to offer fish that is less known. Justin Boevers, director of operations for the online sustainable seafood sourcing tool, FishChoice, says there has been a focus lately on seafood that has been underutilized. Among the lesser known species are rockfish, redfish and dogfish. Limited-service restaurants can present these as a Catch of the Day or other limited time offers.
“If you go to fine dining establishments on the West Coast, you can get a rockfish taco for $15,” Boevers says. “Fast casual and even a food truck could put that on their menu with no problem at that price point, and move it though the production line pretty quickly.”
Frozen gaining favor
Frozen product can answer many of the issues related to sustainability, such as limiting waste. “Fresh fish gets wasted a lot more than frozen,” Boevers says. “For fast casual restaurants there is an opportunity to have consistent seafood supply to meet their specs, if they get over their fear of frozen. The quality can actually be better for a lot of frozen seafood.”
Fast casual concepts are adapting to changing consumer tastes by expanding their seafood selection. Experts note that consumers will order seafood as long as they are presented with high quality, reasonably priced selections that offer them health benefits and bold flavor.
Allied content by Penton Restaurant Group