« December 2006 Table of Contents
Seafood FAQ: Restaurants benefit from falling fuel prices
Procuring quality seafood, product availability, rising
wholesale prices are major chef concerns
By Steven Hedlund
December 01, 2006
Product availability and escalating wholesale prices are the
two biggest challenges seafood restaurateurs face, according to
SeaFood Business' biennial foodservice survey.
But that hasn't stopped them from maintaining or increasing
seafood sales. The vast majority of survey respond-
they're menuing as much - or more - seafood this year versus
That's encouraging, particularly in the face of fluctuating
fuel prices, which boosted seafood-distribution costs. Fuel is
the lifeline of the seafood industry, as nearly 90 percent of
the U.S. seafood supply is imported and distributed throughout
In addition to fluctuating fuel prices, wholesale prices of
several key species, including king salmon, halibut and
American lobster, were up this year, due largely to increased
"It's not just one or two items that have gone up [in
price]," says Joe Monteiro, executive chef and general manager
of A Fish Called Avalon in Miami Beach. "It's just about
Seafood accounts for 90 percent of the menu items at A Fish
Called Avalon, a 200-seat upscale restaurant. Tuna Tartare and
Jamaican Jerk Grilled Grouper are two of the restaurant's
"I'm trying to increase profits in other areas, like wine,"
to compensate for rising seafood prices, says Monteiro. "I'm
constantly asking myself, 'What can I do to reduce costs?'"
Seafood prices are going up, but fuel is becoming more
affordable. Oil prices tumbled from a high of more than $78 a
barrel in July to an 11-month low of $57 in October.
Lower gas prices translate into more disposable income for
luxuries such as dining out.
Fishermen and sea-food distributors have yet to pass any
savings onto Monteiro. He buys local seafood from fishermen
whenever possible to keep prices down.
Bill Bayne, founder, president and CEO of Neighborhood
Ventures in Dallas, which operates 12 Fish City Grill
restaurants in Texas and Oklahoma, uses a "chalkboard" menu of
daily specials to help his chefs manage rising seafood prices.
The chalkboard menu, which represents about 40 percent of a
restaurant's total sales, gives chefs the flexibility to pass
on highly priced seafood.
"If sea bass is outrageously priced," says Bayne, "we move
on to halibut."
Everyday menu items such as shrimp are contracted a year in
advance to guarantee stable pricing. Shrimp, farmed Atlantic
salmon, tilapia and catfish are Fish City's best-selling
In addition to managing rising seafood prices, satisfying
diners' growing appetite for the protein is a challenge for
restaurateurs. More than half of survey respondents cited
product availability as one of the three biggest challenges
they face; it was selected by the greatest number of
When asked what the biggest problem they encounter when
sourcing seafood, 31 percent of respondents picked product
availability; again, it was the respondents' top selection.
Procuring quality seafood is also a major concern. When
asked what they look for in a supplier, a convincing 87 percent
of respondents cite quality (up to three answers were
"Our biggest issue is keeping quality product in our house,"
says John Keener, founder and owner of Charleston Crab House,
with three restaurants in Charleston, S.C., and one in
Columbia, S.C. "I get quality in here first. I worry about
"It's getting harder and harder
to get [quality] seafood,"
Keener says the key to consistently procuring quality
seafood is finding reputable suppliers.
"Once I find them I stick with them," says Keener, who deals
with three to four brokers. "The key to the business is finding
good brokers because they find good suppliers, and you can
concentrate on serving food. If you don't trust your broker,
you need to find a new broker."
Sustainability and health
Sourcing seafood from sustainable resources, where the rate
of harvest doesn't exceed the rate
of regeneration, also
"I'm an avid supporter of using sustainable seafood and
local seafood," says Keener, who a few years ago removed
swordfish, mako shark and Chilean sea bass from his menu due to
He's not alone. Nearly half of survey respondents (47
percent) cite sustainability as one of the three biggest
challenges they face when sourcing seafood.
But only 9 percent of respondents say their customers worry
about sustainability. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (73
percent) say freshness and quality is a common concern among
their patrons, while 55 percent cite taste and 50 percent name
price (multiple answers selected).
Diners are also watching their waistlines, and that benefits
seafood, which is low in saturated fat and high in omega-3
fatty acids. More than one-third of respondents (36 percent)
say preparation is a common concern among their patrons, while
20 percent cite health and nutrition.
What's more, 37 percent of survey respondents are menuing
more seafood-topped salads, while
22 percent are offering less
Keener hasn't decreased his fried seafood selections, but on
Nov. 15 he's switching from hydrogenated oil to cottonseed
canola oil, a healthier option because it's free of trans fat
(see Newsline, p. 8). He says his customers are increasingly
"How I prepare and how I
handle seafood is the key to
making our customers happy," says Keener.
Shrimp, crab cakes (blue crab) and snow crab are Charleston
Crab's best-selling species.
In just the past six months, an increasing number of Fish
City's patrons are asking for the nutritional information of
its menu items, especially via the chain's Web site, says
Bayne. Fish City makes nutritional information available upon
request in each restaurant.
"We never used to get requests," says Bayne. "Now we get
This marks the 19th year SeaFood Business surveyed its
foodservice readers. The survey was mailed, faxed and e-mailed
to 2,000 SFB foodservice readers in September. A total of 190
surveys were returned, for a response
rate of 10 percent.
were analyzed by Diversified Business Communications'
market research staff.
Respondents comprise independent restaurateurs (64 percent),
chain restaurateurs (20 percent) and institutional operators
(16 percent) and represent a variety of concepts, including
dinnerhouse/casual dining (45 percent), white tablecloth (26
percent), cafeteria/institutional (12 percent), fast-casual (9
percent), quick service (3 percent) and other (5 percent). They
are located in the Northeast (34 percent), South/Caribbean (30
percent), West (23 percent) and Midwest (13 percent).
Most respondents (42 percent) reported annual sales of $1
million to $5 million, while 36 percent posted annual sales of
more than $5 million and 22 percent less than $1 million.
Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at