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Top Story: Faith in fish

Restaurants gear up for the Lenten season with value promotions

By Christine Blank
February 01, 2010

The Lenten season is considered the Promised Land for restaurants that serve seafood. For many restaurateurs, 
it is the busiest time of the year, and they plan to grab more sales by promoting value and seasonal fish like halibut and wild salmon, as well as tried-and-true seafood entrées.

Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, and runs through Easter Sunday on April 4, promises increased visits from Catholics and others who observe Lent, particularly on Fridays.

"Warmer temperatures that the spring season brings seem to draw customers into our restaurants and patios," says Kristen Temple, associate director of marketing for Joe's Crab Shack in Houston. As a result, the chain of 115 restaurants plans to get more aggressive with marketing during that time.

"Our local marketing is focused on church groups," says Temple.

Representatives from Joe's Crab Shack have been contacting church groups and letting them know that their restaurants are available for events on Friday nights.

"We're just really reaching out there and saying, 'If on a Friday night you are not eating red meat, we have plenty of options for you,'" says Temple.

In addition to Lent, promoting seafood at a value will continue to be the marketing message that restaurants will focus on in the first half of 2010, after effectively promoting value in 2009.

"I don't see a whole lot of deviation from last year, when chain restaurants put emphasis on value, quality and low prices," says Aaron Jourden, associate editor for foodservice research at consulting firm Technomic in Chicago. "Seafood's healthy positioning will also continue to play into how chains market to consumers."

To go along with the healthy-eating philosophy during Lent, many restaurants will probably create signature seafood salads this spring, adds Jourden.

To promote value, quick-service restaurants (QSRs) like Long John Silver's and Popeyes will likely place fish items at or near the $1 price point during Lent, 
says Jourden.

"Fried shrimp and lobster bites will also continue to be promoted as afternoon snacks at affordable prices," he says, adding that non-seafood chains like Taco Bell will likely introduce seafood items in early spring. "Taco Bell and El Pollo Loco both have shrimp items in their product pipelines."

The Weathervane Seafood Restaurants in Kittery, Maine, will be offering a buy-one, get-one-half-off coupon on any entrée from Feb. 28 through March 21. It will also offer coupons for $5 off lunch or dinner.

"We are very busy during Lent, but we have freestanding inserts (FSIs) with a few discounts in them," says Meg Cloud, marketing director for Weathervane. On its January-through-May menu, Weathervane will also highlight its bread soup bowls with lobster bisque, clam chowder or fish chowder for $6.99 each.

Aiden Coburn, director of seafood quality control for The Fish Market Seafood Restaurants in Palo Alto, Calif., confirms consumers' continuing desire for value in 2010.

"The two things that people want are quality and value. We live in a consumer-value-expectation window that we expect to last until Main Street is out of the woods," says Coburn. To that end, the chain of six California restaurants is focusing on value pricing for high-end items, such as lobster, crab and swordfish.

For example, The Fish Market ran a special on whole-roasted Dungeness crab, plus sides, for $18.95 each. During Lent, the restaurants will feature Miso Yaki Salmon, along with herb-crusted swordfish from Australia and New Zealand. "We are offering them for below what restaurants would normally be offering them for," says Coburn. The lower price point encourages guests to have a glass of wine or some other accompaniment with their dinner, he notes.


Seasonal fish promoted 

Many restaurants are promoting seasonal fish during Lent or capitalizing on entrées and specials that have worked well for them throughout the year. Restaurant operators tell SeaFood Business that they will primarily market around the Alaska halibut season, which starts in early March, along with promoting wild Alaska salmon runs and haddock 
in season.

"In Seattle, the community doesn't actively call out Lent a lot. So, we just make sure we highlight the seasonal fish and the passion for seafood," says Jeremy Anderson, 
director of operations for Consolidated Restaurants in Seattle, which operates Elliott's, Metropolitan Grill and other area restaurants.

Consolidated is promoting halibut and the wild Alaska salmon season this spring. "One thing that is really popular is the halibut season: People really get behind it. And every spring, we do 'Salmon Gone Wild' promotions for the Alaska salmon run," says Anderson.

To promote wild Alaska salmon, Consolidated will feature the fish in a variety of ways on the menu and may mail a $25 coupon to its loyal guests. "Any discounting or promotions for bringing in guests is around a larger event, such as the salmon season," says Anderson.

"We focus on seasonal fish promotions, including the fresh Alaska halibut season and the salmon runs. In January, it is the perfect time to promote fresh shellfish," says Lane Hoss, VP-marketing for Anthony's Restaurants, which operates 24 seafood restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.

Instead of offering significant discounts on shellfish, halibut or salmon, Anthony's simply highlights the in-season selections on its menus as the "Best of the Season" and recommends wine pairings for the seafood items. "We are guiding guests to what is fresh, local Pacific seafood," says Hoss.

Bonefish Grill in Orlando, Fla., is also focusing on seasonal seafood throughout Lent. "We will probably be doing a Rockefeller preparation with mahimahi and featuring haddock through March," says John Cooper, president of Bonefish. From early February through Valentine's Day, Bonefish Grill is also running a "Decadent Steak and Lobster" promotion that includes a 6-ounce sirloin and 6-ounce lobster tail for around $21.50 each.

Starting in mid-March, The Fish Market will offer Alaska halibut. "It needs no recommendation. Even people who can't afford it want it," says Coburn.

Other restaurateurs are repeating promotions early this year that were profitable in 2009 or prior.

"You look at what has worked well for you and you say, 'How can I capitalize on that and assure myself we are going to attract a lot more guests to our restaurants?'" says Coburn.

To that end, The Fish Market is sticking with its "Early Catch" menu, which offers two courses for $12 and drink specials from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday. "We are so happy with the success of it that, even after the recession blows away, why not keep it going?" says Coburn.

Many restaurateurs should consider putting new seafood selections on their bar and appetizer menus to keep those programs on-trend for Lent, says Jourden. "Consumers will still be seeking out value in the form of small bites at small prices. These items also allow customers to share and sample new flavors," he adds.

Rubio's Mexican Grill in Carlsbad, Calif., is featuring fish tacos and burritos utilizing grilled or blackened mahimahi and grilled salmon during Lent. The promotion, which includes salmon tacos and chips for $3.29 each and salmon taco plates with beans and chips for $7.99, started Jan. 6 and runs through Easter.

"This clearly fits in with what we sell the most of. This hits on popular products for the season around Lent and hits on people looking for better-for-you products," says Larry Rusinko, senior VP-marketing and development for Rubio's.

The chain of 196 restaurants in several southwestern states also has offerings in line with what other restaurant chains will be focused on in 2010: fish tacos and fish sliders of all types.

"For Lent, watch for innovative takes on fish tacos, as well as fish and seafood sliders, at QSRs and full-service restaurants alike," says Jourden. "The trend to put just about any kind of protein into a slider is still gaining steam, and items like crab cakes, shrimp, ceviché and fried fish are sure to be popping up on the mini-burgers and mini-sandwiches list on more and more menus."

Rusinko also sees seafood tacos and sliders as an industry trend. "We are hearing that fish tacos are going much more mainstream. And across the industry we're seeing small slider portions," says Rusinko.

Bonefish Grill is banking on the popularity of three new fillet burgers it launched earlier this year. The mahimahi, salmon and tilapia fillets on a bun are each priced between $10 and $14. "We have done a fish sandwich before, but we are offering this with a choice of whatever species you would like, and it would fit into your budget," says Cooper.


Say 'no' to discounts 

While Rubio's is running the grilled-salmon and mahimahi-fish-taco specials throughout Lent, it is 
not offering other discounts and coupons.

"Even though fast-food players are doing heavy discounts, we are in the fast-casual segment. We are delivering higher quality and better tasting products, and really holding off on the discounting," says Rusinko. As a result, the chain has significantly reduced the FSIs it is using.

Instead, Rubio's plans to focus more on Internet marketing this year, including online advertising and expanding its social media outreach. "Especially in smaller markets where we can't afford radio, online is going to take on a stronger presence," says Rusinko.

Like Rubio's, instead of offering coupons and discounts, Joe's Crab Shack will be promoting new additions to its Steampots line, which was popular in 2009. Launched last spring, the Steampots feature various types of shellfish, along with fresh vegetables and sausage in a bucket. Joe's will be launching new Steampots around the start of Lent, to add to its current selection that includes The Orleans Steampot, Bean Town Bake, Joe's Steampot and The Long Islander.

"They have a neat presentation with a variety of flavors. Guests really enjoy them and are moving toward these items," says Temple. Steampots, which feature Dungeness crab, mussels, lobster, crawfish and other shellfish, start at $17.99 each.

Meanwhile, Consolidated Restaurants is offering seasonal fish and unusual species that guests may not see on other restaurant menus. "We won't call out a discount; we will call out the availability, such as, 'We have fresh halibut prepared this way and that way.' We make sure our guests have a lot of options, and not lock ourselves into a corner of all high-end or all low-end options," says Anderson.

Whether seafood restaurants utilize seasonal fish promotions, discounts or tacos and sliders during Lent, the season will likely be profitable for them. While the U.S. restaurant industry is not out of the woods yet, early estimates show signs of improvement. Favorable outlooks that could boost business - especially at high-end seafood restaurants - predict an increase in business travel and more favorable stock ratings for some restaurant chains, including McCormick & Schmick's and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla. 


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