Special Report | April 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Story of the Sea

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In reality, there hasn’t been enough demand in quick service for anything different. While seafood-specific brands like Long John Silver’s and Captain D’s have risen to prominence, fish-based menu items have struggled to gain much menu share across the quick-service industry. Many companies feature only one fish-based item—usually a fried fillet sandwich—and sometimes that’s only during Lent, the most popular season for seafood sales.

But seafood might soon find stronger footing on menus at quick-service restaurants. As commodity prices go up for proteins like beef and chicken, seafood presents a real opportunity for operators to diversify menu offerings without breaking the bank. Consumers are also increasingly interested in eating more nutritious foods, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines, which offer suggestions on dietary intake, recommend that people eat two seafood servings every week.

The NFI’s Gibbons says quick serves have the power to change consumer perception of seafood through innovation and involvement with kids’ menus.

“McDonald’s is doing it right now with the McBites item,” he says. “There’s a possibility that introducing seafood items to kids and on kids’ menus could help both change the palate and also spearhead some of the health benefits. If you look at the potential, that’s really an audience that is maybe underserved in their ability to have a seafood item.”

Indeed, McDonald’s Fish McBites, available in Happy Meals and in snack, regular, or shareable sizes, have helped the biggest fast-food restaurant in the world put seafood innovation front and center. Others are similarly trying to innovate in the space. Long John Silver’s and Jack in the Box, for example, are using different sauces to expand the flavor profiles available with seafood items.

“We know that fish is something that’s very adaptable to different flavors, and a lot of times, especially with [quick service], while we’re not going to get too intricate with products, sauces are a really good way to bring out certain flavors and make something spicy or make it a little bolder or mild,” says Jack in the Box’s McKee. “There are a lot of directions we could go.”

Quiznos, meanwhile, menus a Lent LTO using a product more often fit for fine-dining restaurants: lobster. The brand’s Lobster and Seafood Salad product has been a success for the last three years, says Susan Lintonsmith, chief marketing officer for Quiznos.

“It’s something that’s differentiated from the others out there,” Lintonsmith says. “There is a lot of fish fillet that’s promoted during this time period, and our positioning at Quiznos is about being premium, about being quality. So it fits very well with being differentiated and quality and premium. We didn’t want to fall in with what everyone else was doing with a fish sandwich.”

“If we’re going to try to feed another billion people or two billion people in the next 10 or 20 years, fish will have to come from aquaculture.”

Quiznos can afford to run a lobster LTO because of what the product contains; while it does include cold-water lobster from the North Atlantic, it also contains surimi, a seafood product made with pollock. About 36 percent of all Alaskan pollock is used to make surimi, which is created by breaking down the fish and adding starch and colorings. Many retailers call this “imitation” seafood—the product is commonly used for fish sticks in grocery stores and school lunches—but Shanahan says that’s a misnomer, as the product is definitely seafood. She adds that the term imitation is getting in the way of people understanding that it’s a highly nutritious product that can be flexible in its use in seafood dishes.

“There’s all sorts of ways we could be using this product, and the challenge is coming up with those ways and working with the industry to show them that it doesn’t have to just be a breaded portion,” she says. “It can be all these other things.”

Operators aren’t just upping their commitment to seafood innovation. Like providers, they’re upping their commitment to sustainable seafood. Long John Silver’s St. Clair says sustainability is “hugely important” to the brand, especially at its overseas suppliers. He adds that even though customers aren’t necessarily asking for sustainable products, the company is using point-of-purchase and other messaging to communicate how the company sources sustainably.

McDonald’s is taking big steps to similarly talk about sustainable seafood. The Golden Arches rolled out a commercial earlier this year depicting a Dutch Harbor–based pollock fishermen and spotlighting the company’s sustainable practices. And its decision to add the MSC eco-label to its packaging was widely praised for its attempts to raise awareness about seafood sources.

“It’s not a message of ‘you should;’ it’s a message of ‘you are,’” the MSC’s Coughlin says. “Now when you buy a Filet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonald’s, you are making a difference as a consumer because you’ve made a choice to choose sustainable seafood.” She adds that the MSC hopes to partner with more foodservice brands in order to further encourage companies to focus on sustainability.

The promotional aspects behind sustainable fishing run both ways; not only is it beneficial for the brand using the sustainable seafood, but it’s also beneficial for the producers who have done all the work to get to a point of sustainability. Shanahan says McDonald’s efforts in particular are “wonderful for the industry.”

“Particularly I want to point out that identifying the product as Alaskan pollock—so that consumers actually know what they’re eating—is, we think, a really positive step to having consumers understand more about the food they’re eating,” she says. “Consumers at all levels of foodservice want to know more about where their food comes from, and so I think that those ads showing where it’s coming from and saying what it is on the product packaging is really, really positive.”

Today, knowing more about where their food comes from is often a chief desire of quick-service consumers looking for transparency, looking for an attraction that rises above value and flavor. And for operators, where their seafood comes from is one of the most interesting messages they can share.

“These things tell a story,” NOA A’s Rubino says. “So if you want to attract customers into your restaurant or into your store, putting a human face on it and a story behind it often sells.”

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