It’s the time of year when limited-time offers with a seafood slant start migrating onto menus. Quick-serve operators have long served fish sandwiches and other seafood specials during Lent, a six-week period between Ash Wednesday and Easter in which many consumers reduce their consumption of richer foods, specifically meats.
“It definitely is the most important sales period for our industry,” says Claudia Hogue, foodservice director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). “There have been reports [for] both retail and foodservice that estimates that seafood sales jump by more than 20 percent.”
This year alone the roll call includes McAlister’s Deli’s Cajun Shrimp Po Boy, Krystal Company’s Fish Basket Combo, Del Taco’s Guacamole Fish Tacos, and Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s Redhook Beer-Battered Cod Fish Sandwich among others.
“There’s a lot of LTOs that occur during the Lenten period,” Hogue says. “I think one of the backbones is the fish sandwich that consumers really look for and operators definitely feel they need to have on the menu because if they don’t, consumers will go elsewhere.”
ASMI partners with limited-service chains to help them promote their seafood menu items. The institute has also created a special web page on cooking for Lent, which includes ornate dishes such as wild Alaska halibut with morels and asparagus and Alaska sockeye salmon with chipotle-honey glaze. Although few quick serves use premium species like halibut and sockeye salmon, many operators have upgraded their basic fish sandwich.
“Pollock and cod have always been traditional species that are used in fish sandwiches,” Hogue says. “We’re definitely seeing some new items and … they’re upscaling bread, sauces, that kind of thing.”
Fast casuals may be quicker to embrace the trend: Mississippi-based Newk’s Eatery serves sushi-grade ahi tuna entrées through mid-May, and the menu at Wisconsin-based Erbert and Gerbert’s includes a special lobster wrap through late March.
But many consumers want seafood options beyond a few months in spring. According to a recent study by research firm Datassential for ASMI, 54 percent of consumers at fast casuals and 50 percent of consumers at quick serves said they would be more likely to order a fish sandwich if it were a permanent menu item.
Brands including Newk’s—which serves grilled salmon year-round in addition to its tuna LTO—Larkburger, and Fresh to Order offer seafood options on their regular menu.
Regardless of whether other operators follow suit, Hogue expects the Lent tradition to continue. She also points to the growing Hispanic population, who are traditionally Catholic, as a key segment for consumer sales.
“I think we’re going continue to see it,” Hogue says. “You think of Lent as an old-fashioned thing, but in looking at the numbers, it’s going to be here to stay.”
Read more about the Redhook Beer-Battered Cod Fish Sandwich as part of our Lent menu coverage.
By Nicole Duncan