A good fish tale with every order
Restaurant patrons want a story about sustainability, healthfulness and environmental stewardship.
Today’s consumer expects dining out to be a full and transparent experience, and that includes knowing the details about where their food came from, how it is prepared and — especially with seafood — its effect on the environment. As a result, operators are finding ways to present a story about their food by training staff, posting anecdotes on social media and even staging live presentations in-house.
Experts point out, however, that telling the whole story often requires education. “A lot of times we’d hear restaurateurs say, ‘I think consumers want to know the name of the boat and the boat captain,’ because originally that was part of the story people talked about,” says Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications for the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Virginia. “As restaurateurs become more educated about seafood, though, they realize that this is not the only story people want to know.”
One story people want to know, Gibbons says, concerns aquaculture. “For a long time, there was this ‘wild versus farmed’ narrative,” he says. “People would say, ‘Choose the wild,’ and I don’t think they knew why.”
Operators are educating wait staff about the advantages of farmed fish so they can tell the story to customers. For example, Atlantic salmon is farmed, which gives restaurateurs the ability to serve salmon year round. It is not competitive with wild-caught salmon, but more of a complement. “Chefs said, ‘Wait, fish farming has a story too,’” Gibbons says. “What role it plays in sustainability is just as interesting a story as who the boat captain is and what the boat’s name is.”
Servers may be busy, but if they know the facts, they can answer questions and get the story out that way. “It allows them to say, ‘It’s farmed salmon and we always have it on the menu,’” Gibbons says.
Another example is tilapia, which is sourced through aquaculture. No one asks for wild tilapia, Gibbons says, because suppliers and restaurants have worked to get the word out about aquaculture, and the important role it plays in sourcing sustainable, high quality seafood. For consumers, any story about tilapia would have to include details about whether the fish is responsibly raised and the farm is well managed.
Steven Goldstein, chief marketing officer of Westlake Village, California-based Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, agrees that consumers do not want an elaborate account of the fish’s backstory, but they do want information. “People want information that helps them make choices, and they want it in a simple, clear and concise way,” he says. “It has to be relevant to their experience.”
Operators have to tell the story in a way that does not bog down the ordering process or complicate the consumer experience. If someone sits down to a special occasion dinner, they might want to hear all of the details about the ingredients in an entrée. If they are simply getting a $10 lunch at one of Sharky’s 23 locations, they likely want to know that the shrimp in their bowl was sustainably farmed, or that the fin fish was caught and then frozen within two hours. But they are not looking to have a discussion about the rigorous testing methods related to Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification.
Still, diners do want to know that their food is safe and healthful, and does not damage the environment. “There’s certainly a story to tell about aquaculture,” says Steven Hedlund, communications manager of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Global Aquaculture Alliance, which provides third-party BAP certification. “People are concerned about themselves and their health. If they hear anything negative, they try to counter that negativity.”
A safe environment
Consumers also want to be certain that food sourcing does not damage the environment. That story does seem to be reaching the public, Hedlund says. In 2015 GAA conducted a consumer survey, and found that people know some of the positive attributes of aquaculture. “They understand that its major benefit is that it alleviates pressure on wild fisheries,” he says.
He adds that suppliers are often the ones telling the story. “You’re starting to see better branding, better marketing,” he says. “That’s all storytelling and transparency.”
Sometimes the supplier and the restaurant are the same entity. Hog Island Oyster Co. has two oyster bars and one oyster farm in the San Francisco Bay area. The farm hosts tours and picnics, and at the two restaurants, customers can watch staffers shucking oysters and the chef breaking down an entire halibut behind the oyster bar.
“What we’re trying to do is to create a holistic experience for them,” says Brenna Schlagenhauf, who handles communications and public relations. “We get an opportunity to see their reaction and how they respond to the food that we’re cultivating.”
Hog Island Oyster Co. also posts information on social media, on menu boards in the restaurants and in a monthly newsletter. “We are bringing back the faces and stories of the people who are growing the food,” Schlagenhauf says. “It makes it more interesting for people when they get the opportunity to learn about who is out on the water, how oysters grow, and the effects on our own health.”
The story is not just about the fishermen and the oyster harvesters, but about sustainability. “We have to wave that flag,” Schlagenhauf says. “We have a responsibility to look for resources which are sustaining the planet, sustaining the oceans. It feels really good to be able to share that with people who may be coming out to have a dozen oysters by the seaside.”
For others, the story is about sourcing local fish. At Fog Harbor, located on the San Francisco waterfront, customers often ask which seafood is local. “We’re fortunate to be on Pier 39 directly across from Aquarium of the Bay, which does an excellent job of educating guests on the importance of sustainable seafood,” says Nicki Simmons, director of marketing for Simco Restaurants, the operator of several area restaurants. “Guests joining us after visiting the aquarium most commonly want to know if our seafood is sustainable.”
Simmons says Fog Harbor is proud to be the first restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf to serve 100-percent sustainable seafood as certified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. “When our guests ask us about local seafood, from November to February we tell them about our local Dungeness crab delivered fresh to our kitchen every morning. It allows us to feature a Dungeness Crab Menu with over 20 menu items,” she says.
Allied content by Penton Restaurant Group