Plant proteins are all the rage right now, but, in practice, consumers are much quicker to replace what are perceived as less-healthy proteins like beef and pork with seafood rather than products like the Impossible or Beyond burgers. Fifty-eight percent of consumers surveyed by Datassential in August said they are trying to increase consumption of seafood, versus 37 percent who said they were trying to increase consumption of veggie burgers. In fact, consumers are more interested in increasing consumption of seafood over any other protein, including nuts and beans, as well.
“The trend toward flexitarianism, especially among younger generations, will continue to benefit the seafood industry, especially wild and sustainably caught,” says Megan Rider, domestic marketing director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Quick-service and fast-casual concepts are heeding the call. From established brands like 50-year-old Long John Silver’s to newer, trend-setting fast casuals like STRFSH in Santa Monica, California, everyone’s looking to bring seafood to the masses. “We noticed a growing trend in consumer desire for sustainable seafood at an approachable price point that can be prepared quickly without compromising flavor or quality—this is a key pillar in our concept,” says John Kolaski, CEO at K2 Restaurants, which owns STRFSH.
Fried fish will always be a choice on menus for those looking to indulge, but more concepts are moving toward fresher, more heart-healthy cooking methods like grilling or roasting, or keeping the fish raw in the form of poke or sushi. Customers are looking for something easily digestible but with lots of options, says Donna Lee, founder and CEO of six-unit Brown Bag Seafood Co. in Chicago. “That is a hard target to hit,” she says.
International concept Tail & Fin, with three units in the U.S., achieves this balance with signature sushi creations like The Omega, aptly named for its health benefits. The roll includes salmon, surimi crab, romaine lettuce, tomato, avocado, red onion, honey sesame aioli, and ponzu sauce. “Tail & Fin is a testament that healthy food can also be great-tasting,” says Arnaud Reilhac, executive vice president. As enthusiasm for poke (the brand’s original focus) has begun to fade, Tail & Fin now brands itself as Japanese fusion with more rolls and hot bowls being added to the menu.
ROLLN, another sushi fast casual, has also leaned into the health properties of its hand rolls. “We’re the first in New York City to offer the option of high-protein, all-quinoa hand rolls, made using a proprietary cooking technique that brings a full flavor and fluffy texture that doesn’t fall apart,” says cofounder David Tam. Quinoa nigiri is also on the horizon, he adds.
While bowls are a trend for the larger quick-serve community, the seafood segment seems more interested in making the traditional fork-and-knife delicacy portable. That’s why there’s been a surge in options like ROLLN’s sushi hand rolls, sandwiches, and tacos made with high-quality, sustainable seafood. ROLLN’s handheld options include classics like Spicy Tuna and Salmon Avocado Rolls made from the AUTEC sushi-making robot. Customers order from self-service kiosks, which helps the concept keep up with demand and deliver high-end products quickly.
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STRFSH, which is a partnership with celebrity chefs Michael and Bryan Voltaggio, focuses on making sandwiches like the Trout Melt that includes smoked trout, country sourdough, tomato, and pepperjack cheese, and the Oyster Po’Boy LTO with fresh oysters on a French roll stacked with lettuce, tomato, and a “Dynamite” sauce.
Thomas Nguyen at Peli Peli Kitchen in Houston believes customers are more educated, adventurous, and open to authentic and unique flavors. Peli Peli Kitchen, for example, represents flavors from diverse cultures such as Indian, Dutch, British, and African. Nguyen’s twist on the English favorite fish and chips includes a dipping sauce that uses peri peri, a South African spice that gives the concept’s seafood flavorful heat. “I think you will see a trend towards more obscure, less-well-known flavors and cultures,” Nguyen says, predicting the rise of regional flavors, too.
Atlanta fast casual W.H. Stiles Fish Camp, from chef Anne Quatrano’s Star Provisions restaurant group, mixes flavors from around the world for a unique and delicious dining experience at the Ponce City Market food hall. Fish can be fried crispy and served with a ginger dipping sauce, pan-sauteed meunière (dredged in flour), or broiled with a lemon vinaigrette.
Of course, there couldn’t be a discussion on seafood in the restaurant industry without mentioning sustainable sourcing efforts, which is top of mind for these concepts. According to Datassential, more than half of consumers prefer wild-caught seafood, while only one in five prefer farmed.
Quatrano at W.H. Stiles says a wider variety of fish species are also becoming available in a limited-service setting. She sees more squid, redfish, and trout joining menus in the future. W.H. Stiles has both lobster and oysters on the menu. “Atlanta loves oysters,” Quatrano says. And the concept’s lobster roll is made with fresh lobster cooked and pulled in house.
STRFSH’s Kolaski thinks fast casual is a perfect platform for seafood for this reason. “Options that were once considered a delicacy are becoming increasingly accessible and available to everyone,” he says. “We’ve begun to expand our menu with items not typically found in fast-casual environments, including oysters and lobster.”
Twenty-six-unit brand Slapfish offers a Lobster Boil with lobster sourced from Maine Lobster Fishery served with butter, house-made slaw, natural cut fries, and clam chowder.
And even though the seafood fast-casual industry is consumed by showy flavors today, Tam at ROLLN predicts that as consumers are exposed to higher-quality seafood from more sustainable practices, lighter, more natural preparations that highlight the flavors of seafood will become popular.