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Trend Watch: Low-carb diets spark growing interest in salads

Restaurants turn to seafood to put the protein in entrée salads

Seafood represents about 20 percent of protein toppings for salads on major chains' menus - Chicken of the Sea
Lauren Kramer
February 01, 2005

As 30 million to 40 million Americans diligently count their carbs, restaurant operators have been scrambling to find ways to satisfy them with health-conscious fare that tastes good and will keep them returning for more.

One of the first places restaurateurs looked was their salad department. Recent data released by the NPD Group showed that for the 12 months ending August 2004, main-dish salads increased by 9 percent over the same period a year earlier.

Brian Halloran, corporate chef and culinary director at Ocean Cuisine International in Danvers, Mass., noted that the top 200 restaurant chains had added 80 new salads to their menus by June 2003, and 12 of them contained seafood.

“Increased menu activity over the last five years has resulted in seafood representing about 20 percent of the salad protein toppings menued at major chains,” says Halloran.

Seafood salads are making a strong appearance in entrées. Data from OCI suggests that menu listings for seafood entrée salads at leading chains increased 56 percent since 1999, with fish growing 25 percent and shellfish growing 87 percent. Of those shellfish, shrimp is clearly in the lead.

A quick glance at the menus of a wide spectrum of chains confirms this.

In April 2004, Captain D’s began offering an Oriental Shrimp Salad, while Red Lobster’s menu features a popular Shrimp and Lobster Caesar salad and a Shrimp Garden Salad.

Even casual-dining and fast-food restaurants have not been immune to the increased demand for sea­food-topped salads.

Perkins introduced a Key West Coconut Shrimp salad, Dave & Busters upgraded its salad line to include a prosciutto-wrapped salmon salad, and Houlihan’s salads now include seared Asian tuna and a crisp calamari salad with Nappa cabbage.

“Burger King released a fire-grilled salad available with options of chicken or shrimp in the summer of 2004 and put its shrimp in a special pouch to keep warm,” says Jenny Anderson, executive editor at Technomic Information Services. “That not only upgrades the quality perception, but also offers a more healthful alternative to burgers and fries. The packaging of the shrimp separately adds to the fresh appeal of the food.”

The menu at Mc­Cormick & Schmick’s features a Caesar salad topped with fried calamari.

“It’s a huge seller,” says Saed Mohseni, chief executive officer. “People who are eating it can feel like they are eating something healthy but at the same time getting the taste and flavor of fried food.”

“A lot of chains have retooled their menus, and part of the motion driving these seafood salads is that people see it as an upgraded menu item that’s healthful, too,” adds Anderson.

The good thing about seafood and its role in salads, says An­derson, is that it can act as a neutral base, allowing chefs to introduce diners to new ethnic flavors in a comfortable format. At Chicken of the Sea, Marketing Director Tara Milligan and her team have been trying to ride the ethnic food wave by creating new, ethnic-influenced recipes for chefs featuring their products.

“We’ve tried to hit various ethnicities, because that seems to be a real trend on menus, — featuring Thai, Italian and Asian food,” she says. “Operators have a pretty narrow view of where shelf-stable seafood fits in, so we’re trying to communicate to them the broad usage tuna, crab, salmon and other seafood items represent on the menu.”

Those recipes include an Asian Noodle salad with yellowfin tuna, a Chop-Chop salad with light tuna and an Italian Caprese bread salad, also with light tuna. Chicken of the Sea recently launched a refrigerated pasteurized crab product that the
company is selling to key restaurant chains. Also new from Chicken of the Sea is a smoked Alaska pink salmon fillet in a 3-ounce foil pouch.

At OCI, spokesperson David Jermaine says the company is enjoying success selling coldwater shrimp, Canadian lobster meat and Canadian crabmeat products to salad manufacturers.

“There seems to be some limited interest in warmwater shrimp and the potential for some salmon business if it can be delivered in the right product form,” he adds.

Corporate Chef Wayne Schick at Mitchell’s Fish Market agrees.

“We’ve been pushing shrimp more and menuing more salad opportunities that go along with the Atkins low-carb meals,” he says.

The restaurant currently features a Citrus Salmon Salad and a Harpoon Shrimp Salad, both introduced in February 2004.

“They’ve been by far two of our best salad sellers in the six-year history of the Fish Market restaurant,” says Schick. “We do 250 lunch covers a day, and at least 10 guests create their own dish every day by adding seafood to other salads.

“I think a lot of the trend is being driven by the dining choices of guests, and as long as it continues, we’ll continue to add more seafood-topped salads.”

The trend toward seafood salads in restaurants is also having an impact on how people consume seafood at home.

“We really benefit from what’s going on in the foodservice arena,” says Bud Trunk, director of sales and marketing for ConAgra-owned Louis Kemp in Downers Grove, Ill.

“We position our products as a protein substitute to chicken at homes, and salad is a key component to surimi product usage."

To assist consumers looking for new ways to use seafood, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute develops recipe ideas and distributes them to retail stores for use in brochures and magazines.

Jermaine sums it up succinctly: "It's reasonable to believe that consumers feel that combining two healthy foods -- salad and seafood -- can only be a positive eating experience."

February 2005 - SeaFood Business

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