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Special Feature - Dining out on canned seafood? Why not?

An American staple is making upscale inroads

There’s no fuss at Maiden Lane, with canned seafood like mussels and octopus. - Photo courtesy of Maiden Lane
By Melissa Wood
November 01, 2013

Maiden Lane, a beer and wine bar in Manhattan’s East Village that opened in April, has no kitchen. But owners Gareth Maccubbin and Nialls Fallon still wanted to serve food.

“Nialls and I were talking about alternative food ideas for the menu. After talking a lot about it we realized we both enjoy canned sardines at home,” says Maccubbin. “In our search to find the best sardines to put on the menu we came across all this other canned seafood primarily from Spain, Portugal and France.”

Maiden Lane’s discovery led to a separate canned seafood menu with multiple choices of canned sardines: in tomato sauce, olive oil, hot sauce and escabeche (marinated). Beyond sardines, their canned offerings include cod liver, octopus in olive oil, squid in ink, anchovies in olive oil, scallops in tomato sauce, marinated mussels and razor clams in brine. 

As Maccubbin points out, putting cans on the menu is also low-risk. Unlike fresh fish, the cans can hang out on the shelf for a while. But apparently they haven’t been collecting dust.

“There’s a lot of interest in it,” he says, “I think at first, to a certain degree, as a novelty. But once you try these things they come back. It’s great drinking food.”

All menu items are served directly from the can on a cutting board with sides of parsley salad, bread, butter and salt. 

As far as drink pairings, sometimes cans go well together. “Our low-end cheap beer is Narragansett Light from Rhode Island [served in a 16-ounce can] and the sardines are super popular,” says Maccubbin. “We’re particularly fond of this cod liver that we get from Iceland” produced by Great King. 

Maccubbin says the sherry and canned seafood is also a logical pairing, as most of their selections of both have Spanish origins. 

Next, they’re planning to open an online retail store of imported canned seafood and have begun raising money through an Indiegogo campaign so they can start buying in bulk and hire a web designer.

“We’ve become really obsessed with this stuff and realized it’s an underrepresented food product in the United States so we’ve been reaching out directly to canneries in Portugal and Spain,” says Maccubbin. “Because they’re so simply packaged, people have one at the bar and ask if they can take one to go. It was kind of the next logical step for us to offer these things.” 

Tuna troubles  

The very idea of serving canned seafood in an American restaurant is a departure from its usual place in the U.S. market. On supermarket shelves it has been a steady commodity dominated by tuna: chunked, packed in oil or water, and regarded mainly for its convenience and function in white-bread sandwiches and thrifty casseroles.

Despite canned seafood’s economic edge, sales did not resurge during the recession. According to a report on the website Seafood Health Facts, based on U.S. Census data, canned seafood accounts for slightly less than one-fourth of seafood consumed in the United States, an amount that has been declining steadily over the last two decades in favor of fresh and frozen product. In particular, canned tuna — the No. 1 seafood in the United States until shrimp bumped it from the top spot in the 1990s — declined from a high of 3.9 pounds per capita in 1989 to 2.6 pounds in 2011, the most recent statistics available.

Canned tuna, however, still represents a massive part of the seafood industry, as the second-most consumed seafood in the United States. That market continues to be dominated by Bumble Bee Foods, Thai Union International, owner of Chicken of the Sea, and StarKist, which had sales of $1 billion, $980 million and $710.7 million in 2012, respectively. 

All three saw sales increase over 2011. According to Nielsen data, the canned seafood industry’s dollar sales increased year over year from 2009 to 2012 due to higher average retail prices. At the same time, sales volume increased 5 percent from 2009 to 2010 but dropped 9 percent from 2010 to 2012.

The numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story of what’s happening in the canned seafood aisle, where new products have been combining trends in health, sustainability and value-adds with the convenience of cans. 

New to the U.S. market 

At first glance, the rows of canned tuna lining supermarket shelves and the gourmet cans of octopus and cod liver served to discerning East Village diners at Maiden Lane have nothing in common beyond being in cans. One is a value-priced shelf stable item; the other a prized delicacy. 

But those two worlds are moving closer together. Canned seafood has been long prized in other parts of the world, particularly Spain, which preserves some of its most valuable seafood in cans. While the guys at Maiden Lane have been discovering those canned riches from Europe, new higher-end products have also been introduced to U.S. consumers via the supermarket. 

StarKist’s Gourmet Selects™ sardines line, launched in Walmart stores this summer, contains skinless, boneless sardine fillets in three flavors: extra virgin olive oil, rustic Tuscan-style tomato sauce and zesty whole grain Dijon mustard. Similarly, Bumble Bee Foods launched the Prime Fillet® tuna line, which includes albacore tuna in gourmet flavors of chipotle, jalapeños and sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil. 

David Melbourne, Bumble Bee’s senior VP-marketing, says the new products are a way to make canned seafood relevant to consumers who are often in a hurry and looking for healthful options.

“People are really time-pressed,” he says. “Also you’re taking a look at what I call, ‘share of stomach.’ You see great explosion in flavors; people are looking to try and experiment with new flavors that are focused on portability and convenience. We think we’re very nicely aligned with those trends.”

Melbourne says new products, recipes and social media engagement with its customers are helping to tell canned seafood’s story.

Wild Planet Foods in McKinleyville, Calif., introduced its products in 2004 and has been steadily rolling out new canned options under its Sustainable Seas and Wild Planet brands ever since. 

President Bill Carvalho says the idea stemmed from his childhood experience canning tuna in his Portuguese family’s kitchen, and they would eat the home-canned tuna all year. While working in seafood, he continued that tradition, sending tuna to a small, local cannery and mostly giving it away until he was encouraged to start his own product line. 

“I came from the other side of the desk. I’m the guy who was wet and soaked and freezing on the docks of Northern California and Oregon and unloading the boats,” he says. “I used to send all my tuna to Spain and those brands would can it in glass jars with olive oil and some of that they’d send back to the United States, and people in the United States are buying these European tuna thinking ‘this is really good stuff.’”

He says the company’s next step in the canned category is introducing more items lower on the food chain, such as white anchovies, in 2014. 

It takes about 4 pounds of anchovies, he says, to produce a pound of poultry, pork or farmed fish. “Why not just eat the anchovies?” Carvalho asks.

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 

 

  November 2013 - SeaFood Business

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