If yours is like most restaurants, seafood sales went swimmingly during Lent. Now that Easter has passed, there’s no reason those sales should feel like they’re swimming upstream. People look for seafood when they eat out. With many varieties of fish and shellfish readily available, as well as vast flavors, seasonings and preparation styles to suit any appetite, it’s a good idea to keep seafood top of mind all year long.
Statistics compiled by Flavor & The Menu show that 26 percent of people shift eating preferences from meat to seafood during Lent in observance of their faith. After abstaining from meat, it’s understandable why diners crave foods they’ve been avoiding. That doesn’t mean they stop liking seafood.
“If you had great results with a seafood product during Lent, you can still market that product and others afterward,” says Gordon Food Service Seafood Category Analyst Jennifer Ostrander. “You just need to remind people about all of the reasons they should choose it, whether it’s for the flavor, the health benefits or the sustainability.”
Here are some ideas that can help keep diners on board when it comes to choosing seafood:
Most restaurants run fish and seafood specials during Lent. Why stop, asks Dana Lawnzak, Senior Director of Marketing at Trident Seafoods. Either stick with what was popular during Lent or consider new varieties to increase curiosity. Making them limited time offers (LTOs) or weekly specials can drive urgency and offer a quick way to measure whether a seafood dish deserves a permanent menu spot.
“Seafood is a big reason people choose to go to restaurants,” Lawnzak says. “People don’t want to try making seafood at home—they’re afraid they’ll mess it up, or they don’t like the smell in their kitchen.”
Restaurants offer risk-free seafood enjoyment, something people will pay a bit extra to eat. One popular idea she suggests is Fish Taco Tuesdays. The Tuesday event can spark a sales surge, even though fish tacos might be on the menu every day. And if fish tacos aren’t on the menu, maybe they should be.
Datassential’s Fish Tacos report shows 63 percent of restaurants that serve tacos offer a fish taco option, a number that has increased 104 percent in the past decade. Grilled fish (especially tilapia and mahi mahi) is most popular, stuffed with cabbage, pineapple, mango and pico de gallo or a smoky, spicy salsa for a bit of a kick. For a sustainable, wild-caught option, try Alaskan pollock.
Chefs are always creating, so get your staff engaged in bringing those creations to life. Jessica Hutchinson, Sales and Marketing Manager for Halperns’ Steak and Seafood, reminds operators that diners come back again and again to eat something they can’t get anywhere else.
“That ‘something’ can be as simple as a story that takes the food above and beyond,” she says.
To achieve this, she suggests printing a separate menu page or insert for specials or seafood creations to emphasize the rare opportunity. Instead of listing “market price,” which sounds expensive, call it your live lobster special and talk about the fishing method, the ocean of origin and the limited time availability to add some romance to the dish. And, because you’re using a separate page, you can change the description, the ingredient list and the price as needed.
Don’t limit this practice to exotic seafood, Lawnzak notes. Listing the name of the beer used in your beer-battered fish, describing the origin of the seasonings or explaining about the chef’s cooking technique can help tell a story unique to your operation that boosts sales.
For diners looking to cut calories or eat omega-3 rich selections, seafood is a great choice. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, 50 percent of casual dining customers say they eat fish and seafood because it’s good for them, and 72 percent of those who eat more seafood than two years ago do so for health reasons. Ostrander points to the Alaska Seafood Swap Meat campaign as a way to capitalize on this “better for you” approach by substituting seafood for red meat on the menu:
Chicken picatta becomes Alaska cod picatta.
Beef sliders become Alaska salmon sliders.
Spicy beef with sesame noodles becomes seared spicy Alaska sole with sesame noodles.
Chicken kebabs become pistachio-crusted Alaska halibut kebabs.
Tortilla soup becomes Alaska snow crab soup.
Seafood is always in season, Ostrander says, but varieties such as lake perch, walleye and Great Lakes whitefish are best during the summer fishing months. That’s a good reason to pair fish offerings to the season. Lighter fish and seafood salads are popular choices during the summer months, while fried fish and heartier entrees are more popular during cooler months.
Hutchinson reminds operators that fresh, never frozen seafood varieties are always available from Halperns’. This makes it easy to put seasonally available fresh fish on the menu. “We have fishmongers at all of our plants and they can help you find a fresh option that’s right for you,” she says.
People who like fish for its health halo, are likely to love it for its sustainability, Lawnzak says. An ASMI survey shows 40 percent of millennials expect restaurants to offer sustainable seafood, and Alaska Seafood fisheries and others can offer this benefit, which can be noted on the menu or added to the story you tell about your seafood.
Another benefit seafood presents is versatility. It can be prepared in so many ways—fried, sautéed, grilled, breaded, battered, steamed, seared, baked, marinated, smoked … you get the idea. It also can be presented almost anywhere on the menu, from appetizers and salads to sandwiches, sides and entrees.
“You can grill it or fry it, place it in a wrap or serve it in a bowl—poke bowls are one of the fastest-growing seafood menu offerings out there,” Lawnzak says, referring to the Hawaiian comfort food dish of seasoned raw tuna, salmon or shellfish served over rice and adorned with a variety of garnishes. California roll salads using surimi is another great option.
Whatever you do, she says, don’t overlook the opportunity to set your seafood apart from the competition. Using words like “wild” and “fresh” and “Alaska” can increase the perceived value and increase interest in seafood all year long.
Seafood is a delicious and versatile menu option. With many varieties of fish and shellfish to choose from, diners can always find a tempting dish, whether they’re looking for an appetizer, a salad or an entree. The Gordon Food Service Idea Center has many seafood recipe suggestions to help you find profitable culinary solutions.