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Consumer Survey: Making a menu

Survey: What do consumers want for seafood when they eat out?

By James Wright
March 01, 2007

Ordering a meal at a restaurant can be a daunting task. A diner's decision can be especially challenging when seafood is an option, with so many finfish and shellfish species to consider, as well as a wide variety of preparation methods. When it comes to seafood, it's not always as simple as "medium or well done?"

Making a menu enticing and relevant - devising a variety of dishes that customers in a particular area will want to order - is the mission of many foodservice research and development teams. It is essential to know the answers to some key questions about your customers before committing to seafood: Who eats seafood, and where? When people eat out, what seafood do they order the most? What seafood species do they consider ordering?

Knowing what seafood options consumers want to order - or at least ponder ordering - is the purpose of "SeaFood Business Restaurant Study: Consumer behavior and attitudes toward seafood," a new consumer survey co-sponsored by SeaFood Business and Fishery Products International, a Canadian seafood processor and marketer, and conducted by NPD Group, a research and consulting firm in Rosemont, Ill.

Studying demographics can provide meaningful insight into a region's consumers. You'll need to know what seafood meals your guests are looking for even before they look at your menu. What's more, people of a certain gender, age, race or income level likely have distinct seafood-ordering habits. If you know who your customers are, you'll be better equipped to serve them.

This survey of nearly 4,000 U.S. restaurant consumers provides information about what seafood species consumers are ordering at casual dining restaurants (CDR), family-style restaurants (FSR) and quick-service restaurants (QSR), and what seafood species consumers consider ordering at these restaurant segments.

The survey's findings show that sales opportunities exist in both the fish and shellfish categories. For instance, you may be surprised to learn that about 80 percent of survey respondents claim to have at least one favorite seafood species.

The fact that shrimp is by far the most popular seafood species in all three of these restaurant categories probably comes as no surprise at all.

According to research by seafood economist H.M. Johnson & Associates of Jacksonville, Ore., shrimp was the most-consumed seafood species in the United States in 2005, at 4.1 pounds per capita. It was the fifth consecutive year that shrimp topped the consumption charts. As the survey suggests, a versatile ingredient like shrimp plays well in a variety of restaurant settings.

Whether you are a chain-restaurant buyer serving a new market or an independent chef considering more seafood for your menu, " SeaFood Business Restaurant Study: Consumer behavior and attitudes toward seafood," connects you to the seafood trends at foodservice.

Keeping it casual

About 60 percent of survey respondents say they ordered seafood at a casual-dining restaurant in the past six months. CDRs typically offer several seafood appetizers and entrées over a wide price range, allowing them to offer both affordable meals as well as bold dishes featuring complex flavors.

"Most consumers have at least one favorite fish or shellfish species, with 89 percent of the [respondents] claiming they would consider ordering fish or shellfish at a casual-dining restaurant," up 1 percent from the previous year, the study concludes. Knowing that seafood makes the final cut in many diners' decisions allows restaurant chains to explore menuing many seafood species.

"We have depended on standard seafood choices like salmon and mahimahi. But we run the gamut from catfish to sole to trout," says Robert Okura, VP of culinary development and corporate executive chef for The Cheesecake Factory, based in Calabasas Hills, Calif. The company also operates Grand Lux Café, an upscale casual-dining concept with eight locations in major cities across the country.

Seafood is all over The Cheesecake Factory's menu and is playing a big role in the 120-unit chain's health initiatives.

"Although [customers] may not specifically think of diet food at The Cheesecake Factory, we have had a tremendously positive response to our weight-management salads introduced [in December] nationwide," Okura says.

Of the six new salads, two of them feature seafood; one includes poached salmon, served cold with herb sauce and another has seared albacore tuna. All salads are designed to be 590 calories or less.

"We have seafood in all categories: sandwiches, tacos, Latin dishes, brunch," Okura says. "For me, there's no category we can't expand with seafood. I see it continuing to be a big part of our menu."

Seafood, a lean protein, is an obvious meal solution for health-conscious consumers. Leading the way in that arena is America's favorite seafood, shrimp, which is the most-ordered seafood at CDRs - 36 percent of survey respondents say they ordered shrimp in the past six months and 67 percent considered ordering shrimp. Other top species ordered are crab at 19 percent, salmon at 18 percent, scallops at 15 percent and calamari, or squid, at 13 percent.

Other top species considered at CDRs are lobster, crab and salmon (46 percent).

"When comparing order consideration versus actual ordering, there is clearly more demand for shrimp, lobster, salmon and tuna than availability on CDR menus. Other species that continue to have high demand (and potential CDR sales opportunities) include crab and scallops. Lobster has the highest ratio of consideration to availability of all species," the study concludes.

"Lobster should be utilized as an ingredient or as an appetizer, which can keep the price point to the consumer reasonable."


All in the family

Seafood ordering at family-style restaurants is much less than at CDRs; 33 percent of survey respondents who visited family-style restaurants in the previous six months ordered seafood. Still, places like Ground Round, a family-style chain based in Whitman, Mass., say that seafood fills an important role on its menu.

"Most consumers don't think of seafood when they think of Ground Round, but we feel it is important to provide that option to our guests," says Debbie Sullivan, menu development and procurement manager for Ground Round, which operates 60 restaurants in the East and Midwest.

To lure customers away from the standard burgers and fries, Ground Round relies on regional seafood staples like baked cod and haddock as well as more adventurous fare like its Orange Glazed Salmon entrée. One of its popular appetizers is its Margarita Shrimp'dilla, an open-faced quesadilla with margarita-flavored shrimp, jalapeno jack and cheddar cheeses and pico de gallo.

"We have four limited-time offers a year," Sullivan adds. "This provides us the opportunity to seek new recipes and ideas. We had a great promotion last year featuring red snapper and tilapia."

A fried fish dinner is the most likely to be ordered at an FSR, say 13 percent of survey respondents. The menu at Friendly's, a Northeast chain of more than 500 restaurants based in Wilbraham, Mass., has several seafood items on its menu, including the Clamboat® and shrimp fried-seafood baskets, New England Fish 'n Chips and Grilled 

Fried seafood is also popular at Bob Evans, a 590-unit chain based in Columbus, Ohio, which features the Fisherman's Dinner, a fried whitefish fillet served with French fries, coleslaw and tartar sauce.

"Catfish and cod seem to have reached saturation, while lobster, salmon, crab and scallops have high consideration and less availability," the survey concludes.

Survey respondents who visited family-style restaurants considered ordering shrimp (57 percent) salmon (37 percent) and crab (33 percent) above all other species.


A quicker fix

While most consumers choose seafood for slow-paced, sit-down meals paired with wine, finfish and shellfish can also fill the needs of quick-service operators' on-the-go customers; 26 percent of survey respondents said they ordered seafood at a QSR in the past six months. Burgers are still king for many fast-food restaurants, but seafood is fast becoming a popular choice.

QSR chains are finding success with these staple species like shrimp, salmon and crab, as well as niche products outside of the mainstream. Consider the following QSR seafood decisions of the past year:

The 1,200-unit Long John Silver's chain, based in Louisville, Ky., introduced its Buttered Langostino Lobster Bites, which are available in a convenient Snack Box for just $2.99. Langostinos, a shellfish imported from Chile and Central America, are gaining notoriety as an affordable seafood solution to more expensive American lobster. Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, a fast-casual chain of 150-plus restaurants based in Carlsbad, Calif., features its popular Langostino Lobster Burrito as well as several other seafood items.

Jack in the Box of San Diego, one of the nation's largest burger chains, last year promoted two seafood menu items, the Fish 'n' Chips and Fish Filet Sandwich, to coincide with Lent. Dairy Queen of Minneapolis, Minn., brought back its popular popcorn shrimp basket for the third consecutive year to capitalize on the annual religious tradition.

And the Subway sandwich chain of Milford, Conn., reintroduced its Seafood Sensation sandwich to many markets in North America. The sandwich, which features Alaska pollock and crab-based surimi, has been a core menu item for the chain for most of the past 20 years, says Eric Wolfe, international product quality manager.

"It's still pretty significant in a number of our markets," says Wolfe, who adds that Subway menus differ slightly from region to region. For example, Subway test-marketed a salmon-based sandwich in the Pacific Northwest, a lobster-salad sandwich in Canada and a breaded whitefish patty in Florida.

"The individual territories can do 'locals' as long as we ensure that the product comes from a facility that has been audited [for safety and quality]," says Wolfe.


Age equals wisdom?

Age is a major factor in consumers' seafood-ordering and consideration habits. Older consumers are generally more focused on health and nutrition, and seafood fills their demand for healthier fare.

Survey respondents were categorized into four age brackets: 18 to 24 years old, 25 to 34 years old, 35 to 54 years old and age 55 and up.

For the 18-24 group, 52 percent ate seafood at CDRs, 22 percent at FSRs and 15 percent at QSRs. Shrimp, crab salmon, calamari and catfish were the most popular species.

Respondents in the 25-34 group chose more seafood: 58 percent ate seafood at CDRs, 28 percent at FSRs and 20 percent at QSRs. Shrimp, crab, calamari and salmon were the most-ordered species.

Of those in the 35-54 group, 59 percent ate seafood at CDRs, 32 percent at FSRs and 28 percent at QSRs. Shrimp, crab, salmon and catfish were selected most often.

Finally, of the total respondents in the 55-plus group, 63 percent ate seafood at CDRs, 42 percent at FSRs and 28 percent at QSRs. Shrimp, salmon, crab and catfish were the most prevalent species.

Gender is another dynamic to consider. Of the men who participated in the survey, 59 percent ate seafood at CDRs, 35 percent at FSRs and 27 percent at QSRs. Shrimp, salmon and crab were the most popular species at casual-dining restaurants, while male family-style restaurant visitors opted for shrimp, catfish and salmon the most.

A similar trend emerged for women, as 60 percent of survey respondents ate seafood at CDRs, 32 percent at FSRs and 24 percent at QSRs. Shrimp, crab and salmon were the most popular species at casual-dining restaurants, while shrimp, salmon, crab and catfish were the top choices of women at family-style restaurants.

Finally, ethnic groups' desires for seafood vary. The top seafood species considered by Caucasians at CDRs were shrimp (67 percent), crab (47 percent) and lobster and salmon (46 percent). African Americans' top considerations were shrimp (71 percent), salmon (54 percent) and lobster (49 percent). Hispanic American respondents chose shrimp (70 percent), lobster (51 percent) and salmon (48 percent), while Asian Americans opted for shrimp (60 percent), salmon (56 percent) and calamari (53 percent).


Healthy options

U.S. seafood consumption, though down slightly in 2005, is still strong, at 16.2 pounds per capita, according to research by H.M. Johnson & Associates. More than half (57 percent)of all survey respondents said they are actively looking for more healthful and nutritious options at restaurants.

Because seafood is a lean 
protein rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to numerous health benefits, including decreased risk of coronary heart disease, more foodservice operators are turning to seafood to meet their customers' demand for healthier fare.

Subway's Wolfe says seafood's healthy attributes fit in well with the company's focus on low-fat foods and lean proteins.

"After the avian flu scare we said, 'We've got to find something to replace chicken in the event that it's not available in the future.' We definitely look to seafood, which is known to be a healthy product. Within our operation, we have our speed oven and microwave. We do no frying."

More than ever, consumers are calling out for healthier options like seafood. Restaurants will be responsible for meeting the health demands of an aging population and for influencing the seafood-eating habits of future generations.



For the survey "SeaFood Business Restaurant Study: Consumer behavior and attitudes toward seafood," NPD Group of Rosemont, Ill., surveyed 3,989 adult consumers, with a 50 percent gender split, in November 2006. Respondents were asked about their seafood consumption and ordering habits when dining out over the previous six months. The sample size included 3,190 casual-dining customers, 2,889 family-style customers and 3,749 quick-service customers.


Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com. Editor-in-Chief Fiona Robinson and Associate Editor Steven Hedlund contributed to this report.


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