When it comes to limited-time offers and seasonal specialties, cooler months seem to reign supreme. In early autumn, operators peddle pumpkin-flavored everything and by December many are serving up hearty comfort foods like mac ‘n’ cheese and sweet flavors including chocolate-mint and gingerbread.
Nevertheless, the less indulgent season of Lent is unprecedented if not in its breadth of offers than in the volume consumed.
“We do see a significant increase. …Our preparation actually begins as soon as this Lent ends; we’re going to start preparing for next year,” says Marilyn Nicholson, vice president of media and promotions at Long John Silver’s. “Because we are in the business all year long, not just at Lent, we know what folks are coming to us for and we’re really trying to provide that.”
For fish-centric concepts, this advanced foresight is absolutely critical to meet demand. Nicholson says that comparing Ash Wednesday to any regular Wednesday, sales increase about 75 percent. During the six-week period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, Long John Silver’s expect to sell some 20 million pieces of fish.
To meet such high demand, the brand hosts five regional kickoff meetings, which are open to operators and team members. These training sessions, which Nicholson says are well attended, focus on operations, speed of service, and quality to ensure employees are ready for the crush of customers.
Fast casual Captain D’s also specializes in seafood and sees its sales and foot traffic increase during on and after Ash Wednesday. Twenty-fifteen marked the third consecutive year that the brand surpassed its average unit volume (AUV) sales records, and Lent sales certainly helped with that measure. Dawn Foster, vice president of brand marketing at Captain D’s, says the brand expects a greater than 10 percent sales increase during Lent at the minimum.
“A lot of times during this Lent season, we see consumers who may have not been back with us for maybe six months or since last year and with the Lenten season and their desire to eat more fish, they are coming into our restaurants,” Foster says.
Last January, Captain D’s introduced D-Lite Meals, featuring menu items under 500 calories. This year the brand teamed up with Seafood Nutrition Partnership (SNP), a nonprofit working to raise awareness of the health benefits of seafood.
Foster says Lent offers the perfect occasion for the company to test new, healthy items and determine whether they will stay on the permanent menu.
“Usually we bring in LTOs for about eight weeks or so and depending on how well they sell, we do sometimes put some of these items onto our menu,” Foster says. During Lent this year Captain D’s is trying a new Tuscan seasoning for its grilled menu. If it’s as popular as previous limited-time seasonings, like the lemon-pepper and blackened, it could become a regular part of the menu. “A lot of those products we had tested within the last year or year and a half and consumers really loved those different flavors on their grilled items. So we’re hoping Tuscan may be one of them.”
Nicholson has also seen more customers attracted to seafood for both its variety (including both fish like cod and pollock as well as crustaceans like crab and shrimp) and its nutritional benefits as a lean protein rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
“We know for a fact that seafood as a category and the volume of seafood sold in the United States is steadily increasing. It’s a large portion of protein that U.S. consumers are interested in, and our role in providing that is to make sure we’re not just fish,” Nicholson says.
By Nicole Duncan