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Behind the Line: Know thy seafood
Point-of-origin labeling conveys important messages, but can be overused
By Lauren Kramer
August 01, 2013
Point-of-origin labeling on restaurant menus can be a blessing or a curse. Some restaurateurs see it as a way to educate consumers, justify higher price points on their seafood or connote a premium or higher-quality product. Others see crowded menus that can overwhelm diners with too much information.
Analysts at Chicago-based Technomic determined recently that point-of-origin labeling for seafood has increased by 13 percent from 2011 through 2012.
But no one point of origin is dominant as operators appear to be leveraging a wide variety of sources, notes Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. The top origins identified are Atlantic, Alaska, Maine, Chile, Pacific, North Atlantic, Maryland, Boston, Norway, Hawaii and Canada. Apart from Atlantic and Alaska, identified by 11 and 7 percent, respectively, of restaurants menuing seafood dishes, the remainder are mentioned on 4 percent or fewer restaurant menus. Datassential tracks nearly 5,000 U.S. independent and chain-restaurant menus.
“I believe points of origin help to lend credibility, better quality, freshness and confidence in safety to consumers,” says Webster. “Some points of origin, such as Maryland crab cakes and Boston scrod, are indicative of very specific preparations and dishes that may allow an operator to drive price points higher. A diner may pay more for a Maryland crab cake than a regular crab cake, for example.”
There’s a fair amount of distrust among consumers when it comes to seafood, says Robert Goldin, executive VP at Technomic, “probably more so than any other major protein. So point-of-origin labeling is, in part, a response to that consumer skepticism. But the origin labeling is also consistent with a general demand among consumers for labeling and sourcing information in multiple categories.”
In some respects, labeling can add cachet, he says. “The term ‘wild’ registers with consumers in a more positive way, as do countries including Norway, Chile and the state of Alaska. Some of these tend to assure consumers that they’re getting a quality piece of seafood. But can it lead to increased sales? I wouldn’t necessarily go that far.”
At Restaurant R’Evolution in New Orleans, Chef de Cuisine Chris Lusk adds origin labeling only to seafood and not to other proteins.
“Knowing where your seafood comes from is a core part of the dining experience at this restaurant,” he says. “Our guys pick up shrimp from the docks four times a week, and we know the folks from whom we source our oysters, speckled trout and finfish. This area is known for seafood and we like to promote that to our guests.”
Seafood labeling definitely influences diners’ choices, Lusk says. “For locals, they have a loyalty to local seafood, but tourists also want to try it and see what it’s all about. The majority of our seafood is local and our servers talk about where it’s from and how it’s harvested.”
Moreover, point-of-origin labeling adds some education to the dining experience, Lusk says. “It informs diners what species they have close by and encourages them to look for those species in fish markets and grocery stores. Labeling is a good learning tool for customers and staff, and it helps us promote certain items like our Flounder Napoleon with local shrimp and crawfish, and our seafood gumbo, both among our best-sellers.”
Executive Chef Ben Pollinger at New York City’s Oceana Restaurant has used point-of-origin labeling for the past seven years. “Generally speaking, it differentiates a product from others, demonstrates that it’s better or prime or more in demand or special,” he says.
Seafood is Oceana’s focal point and labeling definitely impacts diners’ choices, he says. “We’ll sell more than average of dishes that have point-of-origin labeling, or guests will tell me, ‘It’s great to have this item back in season.’ It’s unsaid, but they’ll likely be paying a higher price for a premium or special product and be happy to pay it.”
In June Pollinger was anticipating the arrival of lobster from Fourchu, Nova Scotia, Canada, and knew it would be priced higher than other lobster. “When I run Scottish langoustines, I label them in part because I want to demonstrate where they’re coming from and indicate that they are a special product,” he says.
He doesn’t label the origin of all his seafood, though, confining it to those products that add cachet or appeal to diners. “To list points of origin on everything makes the menu visually crowded, lacking in focus. There’s been backlash by the food press against chefs listing the provenance of everything on the menu,” he reflects. “What some chefs do is list all the different vendors or farmers they use on the back of the menu.”
He advises listing the origin if it adds to the dialog. “If it gives guests something to talk about or might stoke a conversation between guest and server, then it’s probably a good thing to do,” Pollinger says. “It can give guests more connectivity to what they’re eating and confidence in the product they’re consuming. But each restaurateur has to make that call for themselves.”
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia
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