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Trend Watch - Hooking kids on seafood

Product innovation and creative menus can help ensure that children will eat fish as adults

Nautical Nibblers tempt young diners with fun shapes and the flavor of whole-muscle fish instead of mince. - Good Harbor Fillet Co.
Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2005

Take kids to a restaurant and, most of the time, there’s no hope they’ll ingest anything even vaguely healthy. Once the french fries arrive, the meal becomes a carbo-fest, a problem exacerbated by most family restaurants’ kids’ menus.

Seafood is frequently missing on those menus. According to Food Beat, a food-industry analyst in Wheaton, Ill., that publishes semiannual updates of the top 200 restaurant chain menus, the five most frequently menued kids’ items haven’t changed in the five years between 1999 and 2004, except in their order of preference. In 1999, burgers were followed by chicken strips. By 2004, chicken strips were the all-time favorite for kids, followed by burgers, pizza, ice cream sundaes and grilled cheese. Seafood didn’t even make it to the top five.

If kids aren’t choosing seafood now, will they choose it when they become adults? Some processors and restaurateurs are working on products and menus that encourage youngsters to eat and enjoy seafood.

As president of Good Harbor Fillet Co., Bill Stride spends a lot of time in school cafeterias to find out what kids want to eat.

“In 1999, when we first started to get involved with the school lunch program, we noticed kids taking seafood product straight from their trays to the trash cans, without even touching it,” he says. “When we asked school moms about this waste, they said their kids liked pizza and french fries more than anything else.”

Stride knew he had to do something innovative to get school kids to eat seafood. So his company developed two coating systems for their seafood products: the Parmesan Portion smells like pizza when cooked, and the Potato Crunch carries an aroma similar to french fries.

“The coating systems are more expensive, and we had to charge a premium for the product, but we got kids eating more fish,” says Stride.

“By flavoring the coating systems, we made seafood seem more familiar, and setting off the aroma in the cafeteria made the kids think about being hungry.”

Stride has kept his company on the cutting edge by taking the lead with products that are healthy, too.

In August, Good Harbor Fillet converted all its product to zero trans fats, “because we feel it’s the right thing to do,” Stride says.

In addition, the incorporation of a new protein technology allows the company to put a protective coating over the whole finished product before it goes into the fryer, retaining the moisture while blocking the fryer fat.

“It allows us to produce school lunch portions that are significantly lower in fat than the standard products,” says Stride.

School cafeterias are one important place where kids form opinions on seafood. Another is chain restaurants, says Debra Arbogast, who represents the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

“When asked about Alaska seafood, kids were fascinated with the mystique of Alaska and were motivated to eat Alaska seafood,” she says. “They even volunteered the names of the restaurants they liked to go to and what they like to order. Shrimp and fish sticks were among the top choices.”

At Red Lobster, seafood items constitute three out of the six items on the kids’ menu, and children order seafood and non-seafood items equally, says Denise Wilson, spokesperson for the company.

“After developing the kids’ menu, we surveyed several thousand children and parents and found that snow crab legs were the most popular food with kids and parents,” she says.

“Kids enjoy eating with their hands — what kid doesn’t like playing with food? — and crab legs offer children a chance to order entrées they see their parents enjoy. We know from consumer research that children today have a much more sophisticated palate.”

Seattle Chef Tom Douglas couldn’t agree more.

“We have fish and chips on our kids’ menu at Etta’s Seafood Restaurant, but we find kids are very sophisticated diners and don’t order off the kids’ menu,” he says.

“They’re modern-day travelers and diners, and they’re eating seafood like sushi and sashimi. The kids’ menu is more for kids who are super-picky and eat grilled cheese for most of their lives.”

Arbogast disagrees. “We see youth menus trending toward healthier choices and offering more variety within those choices,” she says. “In a focus group conducted by ASMI last year, emergent trends in seafood included grilling, presenting food in fun shapes and adding dipping sauces. [That information] was supported by the American School Foodservice Association in July.

“And [these trends] have the potential to be a very profitable market if kids’ menu programs are implemented, the kids have a positive response and their parents bring them back.”

Good Harbor Fillet has had success selling formed portions called Fun Fish or Nautical Nibblers, with shapes like a star, a fish and an anchor. In the beginning, minced fish was used to create this product, but these days the company uses whole-muscle fish, which is whiter, lighter and more

“We’ve had a positive response in retail and foodservice to these higher-end, fun-shaped products,” he says. “One thing we’re finding is that people are willing to spend more money for innovative, high-quality products.”

But when it comes to the school lunch program and profit margins, there is a plethora of problems, says Stride. “One of the reasons there
hasn’t been more innovation is that this isn’t a profitable market.

“The nature of the bid system for the National School Lunch Program is that you have to lower your prices constantly to win the bids, and as a result, the category becomes unprofitable for every competitor. There aren’t innovations because the margins are so low, there’s no money to invest in the category,” he continues. “When the lowest common denominator is price, there’s no quality.

“Until we develop products that create higher margins and cause reinvestment, we’re in a dangerous death spiral.”

 October 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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