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Foodservice Survey: Sustainability a growing concern
More restaurateurs think green, but price, availability and the oil spill remain top of mind
By Steven Hedlund
December 01, 2010
Grasping the concept of sustainability is perhaps the No. 1
challenge facing foodservice operators when it comes to
seafood. Just over half of the restaurateurs polled this year
by SeaFood Business for its biennial foodservice survey cited
sustainability among their biggest challenges, compared to 39
percent of those polled in 2008. Even as the economy weathers
rough seas, sustainability outranked all other challenges,
including rising wholesale prices (52 percent),
sourcing/product availability (51 percent) and declining
traffic/shrinking economy (47 percent).
Perhaps no concept is more complex than sustainability,
which seafood restaurateurs - let alone consumers - are still
to fully comprehend. And it's evident in the survey
Only 17 percent of restaurateurs say sustainability is among
their customers' biggest concerns. Six other concerns outranked
sustainability this year, led by freshness/quality, taste and
price. Even preparation, food safety and nutrition/health
However, while sustainability remains at the bottom of the
list, it appears that more consumers care about the issue, as
only 12 percent of restaurateurs polled in 2008 mentioned
sustainability was among their customers' biggest concerns, a
sign that sustainability awareness is on the rise.
"Consumer demand could be somewhat diluted by higher
perceived costs. It's hard to compete with $3.25 per pound
Atlantic salmon in the fish case, for example," says Wade
Wiestling, VP of culinary development at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, which operates a dozen upscale seafood restaurants
"Consumers care about the issue but are largely unwilling to
actually pay more for it. They demand inexpensive fish at times
more than sustainable species," adds Wiestling. "It would be
safe to add that 50 percent or more of our customers care about
sustainability, and any questions they may have can easily by
answered by our service staff. The No. 1 question they want to
know is, 'Is it fresh?'"
In fact, nearly three-quarters of restaurateurs cited
freshness/quality among their customers' biggest concerns -
that's feedback that rarely differs from year to year.
Another topic that doesn't seem to change from year to year
is restaurant buyers' No. 1 problem when sourcing seafood. This
year, price and availability topped the list at 24 percent
each, trailed by inconsistent supply (15 percent) and procuring
quality product (13 percent). A mere 4 percent cited
insufficient sustainability information as a sourcing problem.
Though more foodservice operators are finding sustainability
among their biggest challenges, the nuts and bolts of
purchasing seafood - price and availability - will always be
Surviving the spill
Perhaps no seafood-related issue has garnered more
mainstream media coverage in the past five years than
of Mexico oil spill. The disaster brought commercial fishing to
a temporary standstill over thousands of square miles of Gulf
waters and soiled consumer perception of seafood, even though
federal and state officials implemented an unprecedented
seafood-testing program and issued assurances that no
oil-tainted fish reached the marketplace.
Nationwide, only 21 percent of restaurateurs said restaurant
traffic declined as a result of the spill, while three-quarters
said traffic held steady. Among the different segments, 28
percent of casual restaurants and 21 percent of upscale
eateries experienced reduced traffic due to the spill, which
had a minimal effect on cafeterias and fast-casual and
"Our traffic is up over the previous year, so we haven't
been affected other than some of the price increases of East
Coast oysters, Gulf shrimp and a few other species," says
Wiestling. "Things are starting to normalize from our
However, in the Southeast, where many restaurateurs
on the Gulf's bounty, it's a different story - 44 percent of
the respondents from the region said the spill caused traffic
to fall. In the Northeast, Midwest and West, no more than 15
percent said it resulted in reduced traffic.
Hitting the books
Those restaurateurs affected by the spill are putting the
disaster in the rearview mirror and finding new ways to entice
diners to eat more fish. Their efforts are apparently paying
off - an overwhelming 92 percent of respondents are menuing
more or the same amount of seafood than a year ago, with 21
percent carrying 1 percent to 25 percent more and 3 percent
offering 26 percent to 50 percent more.
Among the different segments, a surprising 52 percent of
institutional operators (schools, hospitals and corporations)
are serving more seafood this year, compared to casual
restaurants at 24 percent and upscale eateries at 23
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is among the schools
experiencing a jump in seafood sales this year, says Ann
Johnson, the university's
assistant dining service manager.
She attributes the increase to an array of factors, including
more students seeking healthier meals with fewer calories and
"We are stressing wellness much more this year than last,"
Also, the university switched from a straight-line concept
to a destination concept this year, offering a greater variety
of cuisines, many of which incorporate seafood. Among the
seafood dishes the university serves are jambalaya, Creole
pasta with shrimp and crab, Cajun haddock, pecan-crusted
catfish and Parmesan tilapia.
"We started off the school year with a completely remodeled
and redesigned dining service, so we created new and exciting
menus to reflect the new look," says Johnson. "Our students
really enjoy the new options and variety."
This is the 21st SeaFood Business foodservice survey. The
biennial survey was conducted online between Sept. 15 and 30.
It was e-mailed to 2,716 magazine subscribers who are
foodservice buyers, and a total of 230 surveys were completed
for a response rate of 9 percent.
Respondents comprised one of six categories -
dinnerhouse/casual (47 percent), white-tablecloth (21 percent),
cafeteria/institution (11 percent), fast-casual (9 percent),
fast-food/quick-service (2 percent) and other (10 percent).
They were located throughout the United States, including the
Northeast (28 percent), Midwest (17 percent), South (32
percent) and West (23 percent). The survey was conducted by
Accelara Publishing Research and administered
SeaFood Business solicited
our readers to complete
survey and they responded
with enthusiasm. Our $100 winner is Tony Makridis, Greekfest Enterprises,
Phoenix. Congratulations! And thank you!
SeafoodSource Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at