Web Exclusive | February 2014 | By Christine Blank

Deep Dive

Quick-serve brands capitalize on seafood sales during Lent.

Quick serve Long John Silver's serves lobster bite option as special Lent offer.
Long John Silver's rolled out Norway Lobster Bites in time for the busy Lent season.
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Recognizing the potential sales lift that seafood items produce during the Lenten season, many quick-serve chains are once again launching fish-based LTOs in preparation of Lent, which starts March 5. And with more pressure to stand out from an increasingly competitive field, many brands are enhancing their menu and marketing programs to get better exposure for their seafood LTOs.

This year’s more innovative seafood offerings include items like Mojo Fish Tacos from Tropical Smoothie Café and Norway Lobster Bites from Long John Silver’s.

“It’s been five years since we had Langostino Lobster Bites on the menu. Now we are able to tap into the memory of that product and have something unique in the marketplace,” says Charles St. Clair, chief marketing officer at Long John Silver’s.

The brand took the Lobster Bites off its menu after 2009, due to limited availability of lobster. Now, however, the company has adequate supply of wild Norway lobster tail, which is more common in European restaurants. The Norway Lobster Bites sell for $1.99 for a “Shooter” portion size and $3.99 in a “Snack Box.”

Long John Silver’s also timed the Lobster Bites introduction with the launch of its “Think Fish” multi-pronged ad campaign, which advocates for increased consumption of seafood in the U.S. The TV and social media campaign debuted in mid-February.

“During Lent, we see 25 percent to 40 percent increases in our weekly unit volumes. The awareness that gets generated this time of year helps throughout the year.”

Like most other quick-service chains, Long John Silver’s recognizes that Lent is a good season to leverage the attention on fish menu items, even as the brand’s core identity is built on year-round seafood. “During Lent, we see 25 percent to 40 percent increases in our weekly unit volumes,” St. Clair says. “The awareness that gets generated this time of year helps throughout the year.”

The new customer trial that quick-serve restaurants can potentially gain during Lent is what led Arby’s to roll out its Reel Big Fillet fish sandwich LTO in January. “We see success with it right away [in January]. We don’t have it year-round, so people get excited,” says Heather Metzler, director of brand marketing for Arby’s.

Since 2008, Arby’s has brought the wild Alaska Pollock fish sandwich back every year during Lent. Last year, Arby’s sold 11.8 million Reel Big Fillet sandwiches, compared with 8.7 million in 2012. “Our customers have come to expect it, and we are gaining more interest every year,” Metzler says.

Arby’s hopes to boost the sandwich’s sales even further this year, thanks to its partnership with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). Arby’s fish sandwich supplier, Highliner Foods, had suggested that Arby’s partner with ASMI to promote the sustainability and quality of its Reel Big Fillet sandwich; the Alaskan seafood industry is considered one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world.

“We knew that our fish was wonderful and sustainable, but we never told our customers that,” Metzler says. Arby’s will include ASMI’s logo in TV advertising, print collateral, and in-store merchandising materials.

To raise awareness for its Northwoods Walleye sandwich meal LTO, as well as the North Atlantic Cod Filet Sandwich that it carries year-round, Culver’s this year launched a “Catch of the Day” game that runs from February 24 through March 7. The game, on the brand’s website, allows visitors to virtually throw out a lure and catch a fish. Each fish caught features either a “fun fish fact” or a coupon for a buy-one-get-one North Atlantic Cod Filet Sandwich or $1 off a Value Basket.

Culver’s is promoting the game and its Northwoods Walleye and North Atlantic Cod Filet Sandwich through TV and radio ads and a direct mail piece, as well as its e-club, text club, and social media channels. “We saw a significant increase in 2012, when we first started our ‘Welcome to Delicious’ campaign during Lent and promoted our fish on TV,” says David Stidham, vice president of marketing for Culver’s. “We had the second-best Lenten season in 2013, and our plan is to do the same in 2014.”

Culver’s is also experiencing a lift in its seafood sales year-round thanks to the heavy promotions during Lent, Stidham says.

Meanwhile, for the second year, Tropical Smoothie Café added “Tropical Tacos” to the menu for Lent, which this year are the Mojo Fish Tacos. The Fish Taco's sales will be spurred on by Tropical Smoothie’s first national TV ad for the product, airing in mid-March.

“We saw tacos as an opportunity to satisfy consumer demand for great-tasting, better-for-you food choices during a time of year when people were thinking about eating better due to New Year’s resolutions,” says Mike Rotondo, CEO of Tropical Smoothie Café. “What’s better for you than fresh, grilled tilapia tacos?”

The quick-serve chain realized a 16 percent sales lift in overall sales during Lent last year thanks to its “Tropical Tacos” promotion.

Several other brands are getting in on the seafood action this year. Church’s Chicken is offering its Crispy White Fish Fillets and Zesty Shrimp meals for $3.49 each, and marketing the items with a TV campaign. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. are both featuring Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich LTOs for Lent, along with a Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Taco at participating Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s/Red Burrito locations.

In the sandwich category, Quiznos brought back its Lobster & Seafood Salad Sub and Lobster & Seafood Salad, while Subway rolled out a Spicy Tuna sub in select markets.