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Top Story: Fish fact or fiction?

Seafood lovers tell researchers one thing, restaurateurs another

By Steve Coomes
February 01, 2014

Amid the ongoing marginal decline of seafood consumption in America, recent research reveals seafood’s rising esteem as a desired indulgence when offered in every segment of the nation’s restaurants. Though many Americans lack the confidence to prepare seafood at home, they increasingly rely on restaurants to do it for them, plus provide an array of options.

Yet while some trend spotters cited “seafood sustainability” and “local seafood” as consumer hot-button issues, restaurant operators say such issues are rarely broached at the table. Patrons want seafood to be tasty first and nourishing second, they say, adding that sustainability concerns roll in a distant third.

Recent casual-dining menu research also revealed that while many guests assume seafood dishes are the most expensive options, actual numbers counter that theory. Even when compared to mid-priced proteins such as chicken and pork, tilapia, salmon and shrimp compare favorably. Beef is the consistent price leader in the casual segment, though seafood dishes typically share the top price tier with beef in fine-dining spots.

Ralph Rubio, co-founder of Rubio’s, a 190-unit Carlsbad, Calif.-based fast-casual seafood chain, reports strong sales of late and credits much of the upswing to consumer desire for flavorful and healthful offerings.

“I see real strength in the better-for-you trend at our places,” says Rubio, whose namesake chain began as a fried fish taco stop. It now serves a wide variety of grilled fish, salads and wraps. “We’ve also gone a long way beyond garlic and lemon for flavor. Now we have chimichurri sauce, creamy chipotle sauce and mango-habanero salsa. People really want flavor first.”

Michael Denton agrees. The regional chef for 10-unit Ocean Prime, a fine-dining seafood chain based in Columbus, Ohio, says, “I think people’s taste buds win out over what they think they should be getting.”

Despite research claiming baby boomer customers most often choose healthful seafood in restaurants, Denton says, “I don’t think it’s the 60-somethings, I’d say it’s the 30-somethings. But to be honest, we don’t have any firm research of our own to prove it either way. It just seems that older customers just buy what they think will taste good.” 

And the surveys say … 

In the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Culinary Forecast, locally sourced meats and seafood shared the No. 1 spot on its top-20 trends list; sustainable seafood came in at No. 9. In the subcategory of main dishes/center of the plate, locally sourced seafood was No. 1, sustainable seafood was No. 2, and non-traditional fish (branzino, Arctic char, barramundi, etc.) came in at No. 4 out of five.

But these seemingly positive signs for seafood don’t jibe with actual numbers collected by NPD Group in Chicago. According to restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs, seafood sales in all restaurants remain on a multi-year downward trend. For the year ending Sept. 1, 2013, seafood servings industrywide declined 1 percent, “which really isn’t too bad since the restaurant industry overall isn’t growing,” she says. 

Much of the slide is taking place in casual and fine-dining restaurants, where sales of seafood portions declined 6 percent. It appears QSRs are the beneficiary of that fall-off: Seafood sales are up 4 percent in the segment.

Maeve Webster, senior director for Chicago-based Datassential, says her surveys revealed similar findings. Of the 5,000 restaurant menus Datassential studied in 2013, the number of finfish items offered declined 1 percent. All other seafood options dropped 6 percent.

“That tells you it’s being taken off the menu for various reasons,” Webster says, adding that it could be a sign of a poor-selling item or a larger trend. “We’re seeing restaurants deciding to focus on some very specific skills going forward. If they were mostly a chicken or hamburger place, they might be dropping items that don’t fit that core focus. So those changes could be hurting the seafood category.”

Contrasting Webster’s claims is the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s 2013 Menu Alaska study, which says menus themselves are among restaurants’ most solid seafood sales tools. According to the survey, which interviewed 1,020 quickservice and casual-dining restaurant customers nationwide ages 18 to 64, many don’t come to restaurants thinking about seafood. But 57 percent of QSR customers and 52 percent of casual-dining customers say reading the menu can influence them to choose seafood. Another 21 percent say their decisions to order seafood specials are influenced by server suggestions or recommendations. Denton agrees.

“We train our servers to be informed about our whole menu, but definitely specials,” he says. “If it’s something new or unique, we give them information about specific species so they’re prepared to pass that along to customers if they want to know more. But it’s not often that many do.”

A sustainable myth 

While the NRA believes customer desire for sustainable seafood will lead all other culinary trends, chefs in the trenches say otherwise. Tenney Flynn, chef-owner of GW Fins in New Orleans, says that if customers want sustainably harvested species, they’re not telling him that.

“They rarely mention it at the restaurant,” says Flynn, who’s operated the fine-dining spot for 13 years. “Realistically it’s about 10 percent of the population that cares, but that’s a vocal 10 percent.”

Flynn believes the opinions and wishes of “Astroturf organizations” toward sustainable seafood are getting pollsters’ attention more often than actual customers. He says he reads extensively and talks to fishermen to understand exactly what species are and aren’t sustainable, and then he makes responsible purchases based on all the information.

“The truth is subjective and elusive sometimes,” says Flynn. A full 70 percent of the items on his menu come from the Gulf of Mexico. “It really pisses me off when someone from [California] tells me Gulf shrimp or red snapper aren’t sustainable. I want to say, ‘Know what? I believe I know more about that than you.’” 

Like Rubio’s, Pacific Catch in San Francisco tells the story of its seafood to its customers to educate them. But Aaron Noveshen, president of the five-unit company, still thinks customers don’t fully understand what sustainable seafood means.

“The halo effect of that is a strong draw to the consumer, but it’s still one of the greatest areas of misunderstanding out there,” Noveshen says. Though Pacific Catch’s specials boards show where its seafood is harvested, he says only “outliers” ask for more details about its provenance. “Does it mean farmed fish? Does it mean Monterey Bay Aquarium guidelines? Every company needs to have a clear understanding of what sustainability means to their guests.”

James Walker, a board member at seven-unit Boneheads, a fast-casual seafood chain, says customers rarely ask how its seafood is harvested, but they ask lots of questions about each specific fish to determine whether they’d like it.

“About 10 percent of our customer base — at most — would ask those really detailed questions,” says Walker, whose company is in Atlanta. “These people surveyed may hit a radio button on a survey that says they feel one way, but they’re not walking in and asking everything there is to know about our ahi tuna. They want to know about flavor and eat-ability.”

Even if customers don’t know exactly what sustainability means, there’s never a good reason to overlook a good marketing hook, says Jeff Moore, president of International Pacific Seafoods, a Los Angeles importer and processor. 

“If there’s a sustainability initiative in place at any of our customers’ chains, we’ll walk them through how they can use that in a PR campaign and customer engagement conversation,” says Moore. “But when I talk to our customers, I know that [sustainability] has not yet become a deciding factor in what winds up on the actual plate.”

For the health of it  

According to NPD’s Riggs, when researchers find consumers buying seafood for health reasons, it’s usually baby boomers. With many enjoying their sunset years, boomers have become better educated on healthful dieting and are making wiser choices. 

“They want to live forever and stay young, so they see seafood as fresher, lighter and better for you,” she says.

More importantly to sellers of seafood, Riggs says, is this generation’s lifestyle. Not only are its members the heaviest users of full-service restaurants, which serve the most seafood, it’s predicted they’ll eat out even more over time.

“They don’t want to cook and clean any more, and they have the money to dine out,” says Riggs, predicting boomers’ restaurant spending will increase. “This is definitely a positive for this product category.”

Boneheads’ Walker agrees, but says boomers aren’t the only health-minded, seafood-eating demographic. Asians have long believed in seafood’s healthful properties, he says, and Gen-Xers, many of whom are increasingly aware of their slowing metabolisms, want seafood that’s delicious and satisfying, yet lighter in calories and fat than other proteins.

“With any economic striation, you’ll see that people who are doing well financially gravitate toward seafood,” he says. “You don’t have to look too hard to find research and articles that connect healthiness in your personal life and success in your career.”

Really, the price is nice 

Riggs also believes some declines in restaurant seafood sales can be pegged to increasing prices, especially at full-service restaurants.

“Increasingly, the barrier is price,” she says. “Even if you buy it in a supermarket, it’s still got a pretty high price tag.”

Darren Tristano, EVP of Technomic in Chicago, agrees, saying price points often send diners searching for alternative proteins when budgets are tight. Yet he sees restaurant operators making creative strides on the plate that don’t purge their customers’ pocketbooks.

“We’re seeing what we call new-age surf-and-turf,” Tristano says. “Traditionally surf-and-turf means steak and lobster, but now they’re incorporating shrimp or tilapia with a burger or pork or chicken to mean the same. They’ve made surf-and-turf more approachable.”

Pacific Catch’s Noveshen says average checks at San Francisco seafood restaurants are rising because chefs are giving customers better value with plate variety.

“We’ve seen average checks increasing based on how meals are being put together,” says Noveshen, whose menu features seafood entrées such as fish tacos and salads costing as little as $13. His average check overall is $20 per person. “We’re also seeing more sharing going on at the table, which gives people another reason to try a seafood item.”

Leslie Kerr, president and founder of Intellaprice in Boston, says the assumption that fish is always more expensive than chicken or beef is false. Her menu research shows seafood prices at casual dining restaurants are nearly on par with other proteins.

“The truth is seafood is actually more affordable than people think,” says Kerr.

Citing a fall 2013 Intellaprice study, she said the average price for tilapia entrées was $10.78; $14.99 for salmon. Prices for shrimp dishes fell between those two.

By comparison, chicken entrée prices ranged between $9.99 and $12.87, while steak prices ranged from $11.19 to $17.99.

“We found there’s little difference in price between chicken, seafood and some steaks,” Kerr says. “When you see averages for seafood in the high-$11 to mid-$12 range, you notice there are a lot of options.”

Kerr also said seafood add-ons to salads and pastas were equal to the cost of adding chicken or steak to those same dishes. The average cost of such upsells is about $1.

“I think it bodes well for seafood that it’s so within reach for anyone who’s dining out and wants to add it to their weekly repertoire of meals,” Kerr says. “A lot of customers still think, ‘I’d like to have seafood because it’s healthy, but it’s too expensive.’ But it’s really not.”

Contributing Editor Steve Coomes lives in Louisville, Ky. 

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