For many diners, Lent was once a four-letter word. Think reheated fish sticks. Or whatever that tuna casserole your parents tossed in the microwave was. This carried over to the realm of quick service as well. Fish filets and other fast food seafood items have always possessed a strong following, but it was often a don’t ask, fry, sort of relationship. Species? Origin? White Fish was about the only descriptor anybody needed.

As restaurants push toward transparency and quality in their offerings—all in response to the savvier consumer—the six-week period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday has come to represent something else entirely. In addition to this period resulting in a sales boon for the operator, it also signals a time of renewed excitement for the consumer. Top brands are not just promoting typically popular dishes but also reinventing the surf with the turf. At White Castle, for example, you can actually have both, on one sandwich, with hot sauce if that’s your thing.

A prime example is sandwich giant Subway. The Tuna Sub is the brand’s second-highest selling item, accounting for 8 percent of the brand’s entire sales. The 6-inch version comes in at 480 calories and provides 20 grams of protein. Meanwhile, it’s a solid source of calcium, vitamin D, and iron. And recently, Subway became the 40th member of The International Pole & Line Foundation, an international nonprofit dedicated to developing and supporting sustainable tuna fisheries and supply chains. Now, piled on top of the nutritional value, sustainability-minded guests can feel confident about ordering the item featured on more than 44,600 Subway menus worldwide. IPNLF’s mission is to ensure that the demand for one-by-one caught tuna can be met without compromising sustainability.

In 10 select U.S. markets, Subway also steps up its Lenten game with a Wild-Caught Alaskan Pollock sandwich, which is lightly coated in a sea salt and cracked pepper breading, then toasted and topped with crispy kettle cooked sea salt & vinegar chips, and creamy tartar sauce.

The Alaskan waters are a haven for menu developers. The Menu Alaska Research 2016 found that 62 percent of consumers are eating seafood at casual dining restaurants and nearly half at quick-service venues these days. The No. 1 region? Alaska seafood. In fact, just using the term “Alaska” inspires confidence and drives sales, with 94 percent of consumers saying they would order a dish containing the descriptor.

“The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute [ASMI] completed research [Datassential, January 2016] to help foodservice operators understand consumer preferences for seafood at chain restaurants. The research demonstrates that consumers are looking for more seafood on menus, particularly wild-caught seafood, for taste and health reasons,” says Karl Uri, foodservice marketing manager, ASMI. “This new research is a great resource for operators and supports menuing more seafood in place of non-seafood proteins, offering a greater variety of seafood and featuring grilled as well as fried seafood items. With its wild, natural and sustainable attributes, Alaska seafood is the perfect choice to create profitable menu items and deliver superior flavor.”

Check out this Alaska Halibut with Wild Mushrooms and Leeks Recipe.

Those quick-service chains already specializing in seafood, like Long John Silver’s, enjoy a sizable spike during the period. The chain expects to sell more than 30 million pieces of seafood during the window, enough to feed the population of Florida and have leftovers for everyone in New York City. Long John Silver’s also says it will serve enough tartar sauce to fill 50 hot tubs. Historically, Long John Silver’s sees a 75 percent increase in sales on just Ash Wednesday.

“Families love letting Long John Silver’s take care of dinner during this time of year,” Katie Rooprai, vice president of marketing, says in a release. “We are happy to do the cooking so families can spend more time together while eating quality seafood at a great value.”

The brand adds a sweepstakes—the Fish You Were Here promotion—into the mix. Customers who upload a fish face selfie can win a weeklong trip for a family of four to three Orlando-area theme parks. Their newest menu release, Beer Battered Alaskan Cod, will continue to highlight the offerings.

Here are some additional menu items for Lent this year:

Bojangles’: Following a tremendously popular debut last year, Bojangles’ brought back the BojAngler fish sandwich. The light, wild-caught Alaskan Pollock filet is made with a dash of Bojangles’ popular fry seasoning. The filet is paired with a slice of all-natural cheddar cheese and zesty tartar sauce, all between a golden-brown toasted, buttered bun.

Quiznos: Opposite Quiznos Lobster & Seafood Salad Sub, the savory Lobster & Seafood Scampi Bake features toasted garlic-baked lobster, melted Mozzarella, tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and onions. Quiznos touts high-quality, premium lobster.

Back Yard Burgers: By popular demand, the fast-casual burger restaurant brought back the Mahi Burger with salt and vinegar fries. The flame-grilled Mahi Burger is served on a brioche-style bun with zesty creole mayo, green leave lettuce and ripe red tomato. “At Back Yard Burgers we want to offer unique and delicious burgers for those who observe Lent and those that love fish,” says David McDougall, CEO of Back Yard Burgers. “The Grilled Mahi Burger is just as delicious as any of our traditional burgers and will satisfy any burger craving.”

Church’s Chicken: Also back by popular demand are Church’s Lemon-Seasoned Butterfly Shrimp and Crispy Fish. Guests can choose tender, marinated shrimp or flaky white fish filets, fried up golden brown and finished with the perfect blend of zesty lemon herb seasoning. Also returning to the menu for a limited time, are Church’s Hush Puppy Biscuit Bites, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside hush puppies made from Church’s signature biscuit dough.

Whataburger: The Whatacatch sandwich includes a wild-caught Alaskan Pollock fish fillet with southern-style cornmeal breading, served on a toasted four-inch bun, accompanied with crisp lettuce and topped off with Whataburger’s original tartar sauce. The Whatacatch dinner includes two all-white fish fillets, french fries and Whataburger’s tartar sauce.

Krystal: Krystal is featuring its popular Mix for $5 value on Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwiches from now until April 16. Offered in partnership with King & Prince Seafood, the tasty soft-roll sandwiches are loaded with crispy butterfly shrimp and tangy sauce—just like the Southern sandwich classic. The fried to perfection shrimp also can be ordered by the basket paired with a choice of delectable sauces such as buffalo, barbecue or Texas petal. “Shrimp is one of those tastes you just can’t get enough of,” says Heather Schlesinger, director of calendar programs and promotions for Krystal. “It only makes sense to bring back the coastal flavors all of our guests love.”

Wayback Burgers: The brand is putting its own spin on classic fish n’ chips with the introduction of its WB Cod Platters, available at participating Wayback Burgers restaurants nationwide for a limited time. Wayback Burgers’ fresh fish dishes include the WB Cod Sandwich platter—a crispy, battered 100 percent Icelandic flaky cod fillet, topped with lettuce and house-made tartar sauce on a toasted bun—and Cod Fillet platter – two fresh, battered cod fillets with tartar sauce for dipping—both served with a side of coleslaw and fries. The limited-time-only platters join the existing WB Cod Sandwich, which is available a la carte year-round.

Togo’s Eateries: Togo’s is bringing back its Lemon Pepper Tuna Sandwich. To freshen the deal, participating Togo’s locations are offering a regular Lemon Pepper Tuna Sandwich and 22-ounce fountain drink for just $6.50 on Fridays. The Lemon Pepper Tuna Sandwich starts with 100 percent Albacore tuna, seasoned with tangy lemon and cracked black pepper, then hand-mixed with diced celery, red onions and lite mayonnaise.

Carl’s Jr.: Carl’s Jr. announced the return of a fan favorite: the Redhook Beer-Battered Fish Sandwich. Featuring a crispy, beer-battered premium wild-caught Alaska pollock fillet, the Redhook Beer-Battered Fish Sandwich is topped with fresh lettuce, creamy tartar sauce and tomato, all piled high on a sesame seed bun. The menu item is co-branded with Seattle’s Redhook Brewery, and features the distinctive flavor of their Extra Special Bitter ale.

Del Taco: Alaska Pollock Fish Taco for Lent

Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers: Alaska Cod Fish Sandwich

Jack in the Box: Wild Caught Alaska Pollock Fish Sandwich—A crispy Alaska Pollock white fish filet topped with shredded lettuce and tangy tartar sauce on a lightly toasted bun

Rubio’s: Alaska Pollock Fish sandwich in addition to The Original Fish Taco, Fish Taco Especial, Beer-Battered Fish Burrito all featuring Alaska Pollock.

Smokey Bones: Alaska Cod Fish & Chips—Samuel Adams Boston Lager beer-battered, golden fried Alaska Cod and natural cut fries plus cole slaw and tartar sauce.

Waba Grill: Alaska salmon on plates, rice and vegetable bowls.

White Castle: Fish Nibblers and Fish Sliders made with Alaska Pollock with craveable flavor that appeals to millennials. White Castle also unveiled the Seafood Crab Cake Slider. These  seafood crab cakes, topped with a zesty creole sauce, are served on the signature slider bun and will be available at most White Castle restaurants for a limited time.

Penn Station East Coast Subs: The fast-casual known for its grilled, made-to-order sub sandwiches, hand-squeezed lemonade, and fresh-cut fries, is offering its grilled artichoke, veggie and tuna salad sandwiches as the monthly special for March. Customers can get a six-inch sandwich, small fresh-cut fries and a drink for approximately $7.99 (prices vary by location).

MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes: The brand is using their newest Taste to Try burger to cater to those guests who may have dietary restrictions during the Lent season. It’s called the Meatless Beast and features the brand’s black bean veggie patty loaded with two cheeses—Cheddar and pepper jack—fried onion strings, lettuce, tomato, ranch, and MOOYAH sauce.

Wing Zone: The chain is offering a fried shrimp combo—10 shrimp for $5.99.

Checkers and Rally’s: The two brands are offering the Deep Sea Double, two golden, crispy fish filets on a toasted bun, and Cheddar Shrimp.

Schlotzsky’s: There are two options to choose from: The Tuna Original, which is tuna mixed with cream cheese and Cheddar, Mozzarella, Parmesan cheeses, mayonnaise, apples, red onions, black olives, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and signature sauce, served on a toasted sourdough bun; and the Shrimp Original—shrimp mixed with cream cheese and Cheddar, Mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses, chipotle mayonnaise, chipotle pesto, black olives, red onions, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and signature sauce, served on a toasted sourdough bun.

Culver’s: From Canadian waters, Culver’s Northwoods Walleye Sandwich, which is hand battered and cooked to order, is available for a limited time. It’s topped with a special recipe tartar sauce and crisp shredded lettuce, and served on a lightly buttered, toasted hoagie roll.  The option is also joined by the always-popular North Atlantic Cod Filet Sandwich. Sourced from the North Atlantic, the menu item also contains the Culver’s family recipe tartar sauce and features olives, capers, and sweet relish, and is topped with crisp lettuce and Wisconsin Cheddar, served on a lightly buttered, toasted hoagie roll.

By Danny Klein

Burgers, Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, News, Sandwiches