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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 working 
to fully comprehend. And it's evident in the survey results.

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 nudged sustainability.

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 nationwide.

"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 paramount.


Surviving the spill

Perhaps no seafood-related issue has garnered more mainstream media coverage in the past five years than 
the Gulf 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 quick-service outlets.

"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 perspective."

However, in the Southeast, where many restaurateurs 
 rely 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 percent.

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 less fat.

"We are stressing wellness much more this year than last," says Johnson.

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 
 by Diversified Business Communications.


SeaFood Business solicited 
our readers to complete 
the 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 shedlund@divcom.com



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