For decades, seafood has been fighting the tide in the limited-service restaurant industry, with the space mostly remaining a niche compared with the burger, sandwich, pizza, and chicken categories. Only Long John Silver’s and Captain D’s ever managed to make any real dent on the national scene, with each drifting on and off the QSR 50 over the past five years.
Lately, though, seafood has found a home in the fast-casual industry, where more adventurous dishes and elevated quality have allowed for an expanded frontier in seafood innovation for the masses.
“Until fairly recently, seafood was mainly seen on the menus of white-tablecloth or sushi restaurants,” says Joann Chung, owner and founder of San Mateo, California–based Pokeatery. “However, as more and more consumers turn to seafood as a low-fat, healthier protein option, its popularity has grown.”
Of course, the poké trend has helped that growth with the promise of adventurous, fresh, healthy dishes in a bowl format checking several trend boxes. Poké is essentially deconstructed sushi rolls, with raw fish and rice combined with other mix-ins. Pokeatery offers customizable bowls, with guests able to choose among seafood like albacore, yellowtail, shrimp, and even octopus. Chung says the brand sets itself apart with sauces like the Spicy Ono, which has a sweet flavor and finishes with a bit of a kick, and with bases like the Uala Chips, which are made from Hawaiian sweet purple potatoes.
In New York, Wisefish Poké offers standard poké options like ahi tuna and salmon, along with lesser-known seafood varieties in LTOs like blackfin tuna, porgy, and rabbitfish. Cofounder Drew Crane says the brand has also experimented with flavors beyond poké’s traditional Japanese, Korean, and Chinese roots, working in Mediterranean, classic French, and modern American characteristics.
“We’ve created special poké bowls for each fish, incorporating global flavors that complement the flavors and textures of each fish we feature,” he says. “It’s always awesome when we can introduce someone to a species they’ve never heard of and broaden their horizons beyond ahi and salmon.”
Meanwhile, sushi has also found a home in fast casual. Columbus, Ohio–based FUSIAN grew to 10 locations dishing customizable sushi rolls, while many other brands—like Philadelphia’s Hai Street Kitchen, San Francisco’s Sushirrito, and Washington, D.C.’s Buredo—have turned sushi into more of a fast-casual novelty by serving it in burrito form.
In Miami, fast casual My Ceviche hopes to ride poké’s coattails with another raw-fish dish. Chef and cofounder Sam Gorenstein says he grew up eating ceviche—raw fish marinated in citrus juice—and he hopes to educate more Americans about its flavors. My Ceviche serves multiple raw-fish varieties in tacos, burritos, and bowls, adding mix-ins like cilantro, tomatoes, jalapeño, and rice.
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Still, as with other seafood fast casuals, My Ceviche faces a steep climb particularly with its supply costs. “Supply chain is always the biggest challenge, and always keeping up with the increasing prices. It’s a huge issue,” Gorenstein says. “There’s only so much we want to charge; we want to stay within a range, at a price point. But the product keeps creeping up every year. Labor goes up, product goes up, but you can only charge so much if you want to stay competitive.”
Indeed, seafood costs can be volatile, particularly as fisheries maintain strict quotas to ensure sustainability. For example, Alaska lowered its cod quota by 80 percent for 2018 after studies found a dramatic decline of the popular whitefish in the Gulf of Alaska; prices are expected to skyrocket.
One product enjoying its best prices in years is Maine lobster, and several brands are capitalizing on that reality with lobster rolls. New York–based Luke’s Lobster put the dish on the fast-casual map, launching in New York in 2009 and growing to a couple dozen domestic locations—and several in Japan—serving lobster rolls, crab rolls, lobster mac ’n’ cheese, chowder, and other options.
Luke’s takes seafood innovation beyond the menu by owning its supply chain. The company owns and manages Cape Seafood in Saco, Maine, through which it works with local fishermen to sustainably catch and process its product.
“We’re able to tell the guest when they walk in the door and when they walk away with a lobster roll exactly where that lobster came from,” cofounder Ben Conniff told QSR last year. “A good chunk of money that you spent on that lobster roll is going back to that sustainably managed fishery in that small, rural community.”
Traditional seafood dishes are also playing well in the fast-casual category, from fish ’n’ chips to grilled varieties. Ivar’s has been a Seattle mainstay for 80 years, and has 23 counter-service Seafood Bars around the Pacific Northwest that offer Ivar’s signature clam chowder, as well as grilled salmon and halibut, Dungeness crab, scallops, and oysters. There are also salads, sandwiches, and other seafood-starring options.
Carl Taylor, regional manager of Ivar’s Seafood Bars, says the chain’s proximity to some of the best U.S. seafood sources has allowed him to serve higher-quality and outside-the-box varieties—but only within reason. “I’ve been able to put together some dishes that you normally would not find in a quick-service environment at a decent price point, without going too far past the boundaries,” he says. “But I can’t advertise something to my guests at a certain dollar amount.”
Chicago-based Brown Bag Seafood wants to bring the Midwest city its own seafood staple, as it’s long been a black hole for fresh seafood served quickly, says founder Donna Lee. The four-unit brand was founded after Lee became a pescatarian and realized people like her who wanted a healthier protein option had nowhere to turn.
Brown Bag’s menu lets guests customize their seafood dishes, with salad, “straight up” (plated with a side), “powerbox” (atop a wild rice and quinoa blend and spinach), and “veggie box” (atop a blend of green veggies) options. Fish varieties range from salmon, whitefish, and shrimp to a daily catch that rotates. There are also fish sandwich and taco options. “In fast casual, you’re almost educating your customer over a series of visits,” Lee says of the seafood category. “It’s not like we can sit them down and talk about why this unknown seafood tastes so great. You have probably two minutes to make an impression.”