Menu descriptors guide customers’ seafood choices

Menu descriptors guide customers’ seafood choices

With every fish, there is a story. For restaurant customers, the story must encompass whether the seafood has been sustainably sourced, from where it originated and if it is all-natural. They also want to be reassured that the fish is really what the menu says it is — particularly in light of recent media reports of operators and suppliers selling seafood that is not what the label indicates. Restaurant-goers want to eat the seafood that is described on the menu, not a less expensive, low-quality fraudulent fish.

In addition, the seafood industry is striving to overcome negative news from investigative reports that workers in Indonesia and other countries were subjected to dangerous working conditions and abusive practices — including international human trafficking.

As a result, more restaurateurs are working with suppliers and with third-party certification programs to ascertain that their seafood has been raised responsibly and that workers are laboring under humane conditions. Operators also are making sure that they communicate with consumers through menu descriptors and other messaging to reassure them that the seafood is from a sustainable source.
Steven Hedlund, the communications manager of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, which offers the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification, says there are steps foodservice operators need to take to make sure they are sourcing sustainable seafood. The group, based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has a market development team which works closely with buyers. Foodservice operators “are the ones driving the change because they are demanding it from suppliers,” he says.

When a restaurateur decides to commit to sourcing sustainable seafood, the group works with the operator to take a closer look at its supply chain, to make changes if needed and to communicate to customers about the sourcing. “We are all in this together,” Hedlund says. “On the communications side, how do we use that as a competitive advantage, positioning a restaurant as one which acts responsibly?”

The Global Aquaculture Alliance works with suppliers, processors and others in the seafood industry. The group offers a blue and white BAP logo which suppliers can affix to their packaging to indicate that the seafood came from certified facilities, demonstrating that they are a socially responsible and environmentally friendly seafood choice. Some restaurant operators put the logo on their menus, and Hedlund says the group works with operators to train servers and other workers on how to answer questions about the seafood. “When a guest asks, ‘Where is the salmon from or the tilapia or shrimp,’ servers are the ones on the front lines,” Hedlund says. “They are the messengers a lot of the time.”

Another certification is the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) label, which comes from fish farms which meet the extensive standards the ASC has set for responsible aquaculture. Operators offering seafood that is ASC-certified may use the ASC logo on the menu, and can also include the text: “Seafood with this mark comes from a farm that has been independently certified to the ASC’s standard for responsibly farmed seafood.”
Operators educate themselves, not only to potentially increase sales, but also to ensure that they can accurately answer their customers’ queries about the seafood they’re serving. Now more than ever, consumers are asking questions about food and searching for relevant information, mostly online. Americans are armed with knowledge about food safety, the impact of food on health, environmental issues, labor and human rights concerns, animal well-being and business ethics.

According to the Kansas City, Missouri-based The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) in its 2016 study, “Inside the Minds of Influencers: The Truth About Trust,” 40 percent of consumers believe that they have access to all of the information they need about where food comes from, how it’s produced and its safety. That’s up from 17 percent in 2008.

That increase, the report notes, points to a more empowered consumer. Those consumers can easily access information, so they have come to expect transparency from food companies, farmers, grocery stores and restaurants.

“Restaurants have a role to play,” says J.J. Jones, director of development for CFI. “They will have to communicate with their suppliers and make sure they get a good understanding of sustainability and food safety factors. Then, when people come into the restaurant and ask whether something is sustainably caught or rased, they can provide a factual answer.”

Increasingly, operators are not waiting for customers to ask questions about their seafood. They are posting information proactively. At Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, the food vendors are listed on the menu, the restaurant’s website and its social media. There is also signage inside the cafe listing the farmers and encouraging customers to learn more by visiting the Birchwood website or its partners’ websites.

“We are committed to sourcing food that is grown without pesticides and with animals which are raised and/or harvested humanely,” says Megan Swenson, marketing director. For example, their fish is sourced from an aquaponic farm, also in Minnesota, that grows both fish and plants in a closed-loop, self-sustaining system. “The impact on water usage, ecosystem integrity and the long-term vitality of the oceans and species that live in it is incredible. Our customers want to know that what they are eating is good for them and good for the environment.”
Some operators offer transparency by dispelling myths. Under the FACTS tab on 
its website, San Francisco restaurant Ferry Plaza Seafood posts information about specific types of seafood and how they are best sourced. “Common fish species raised by fish farms include salmon, catfish, tilapia, cod, carp, trout and others. Additionally, crab is never farmed while mussels, clams, and oysters are always farmed. These shellfish are farmed for safety and quality control reasons.”
Operators say that it is important to offer information about farmed seafood on the menu, and on the restaurant’s website, not only for transparency but because consumers should know that aquaculture offers premium seafood solutions.
“The most frequent question we receive is about whether the seafood on our menu is wild or farm raised,” says Jason Gerlt, general manager of Southpark Seafood in Portland, Oregon. “There is a stigma about seafood that if it has been farm raised, it is lower quality and harmful to the environment. While that may have been true in the past, it is certainly not the case today. When done right, farm-raised seafood can be better for the environment and taste just as delicious as its wild counterparts.”
Gerlt adds that Southpark Seafood takes transparency one step further by partnering with Visiting Media, a local company that utilizes 360-degree technology to create online virtual tours. Southpark Seafood showcases virtual tours of local purveyors on the restaurant’s website to give guests a “virtual farm-to-table experience.”
“Sustainability has always been at the core of what we do here at Southpark Seafood,” Gerlt says. “We communicate this through our website and social media as well as on our menus.”

Whether it means offering a detailed menu description or an integrated online presence, operators across the nation are sharing more information about the seafood they are serving in an effort to satisfy their increasingly exacting restaurant guests — and to help boost sales.

Allied content by Penton Restaurant Group