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Seafood gets casual

fish tacos restaurant

Operators know that seafood is a delicious, healthy alternative to other proteins, and they’d like to sell more of it. But how do you get customers to buy in? And how do you take an ingredient category with a reputation for premium pricing and tricky handling and turn it into a popular, accessible menu option that fits within an affordable cost structure?

Answer: Take a more casual approach.

Seafood is often menued in plated entrees with a side or two. Many customers find that intimidating, and many operators think it’s not worth the investment in a product that guests might not order, or that they’ll need all kinds of extra inventory to create. But by featuring fish in fun, casual handhelds such as tacos and burgers, or by simply swapping it in for another protein in existing menu specialties, seafood sales will build.

Operators are getting on board. According to recent Technomic data, in fact, the incidence of fish tacos on menus grew 67%, to 157 menu items, in the third quarter of 2015 versus the prior year quarter.

Beyond tacos and burritos, fish and shellfish can be incorporated into casual, more affordable options of all kinds, including:

  • Sandwiches, burgers and sliders
  • Salads
  • Pasta
  • Pizza toppings
  • Appetizers and small plates
  • Sushi and ramen
  • Kebabs and other skewered foods

Food costs are held in check because portion sizes are smaller than those required for a traditional center-of-plate entree. In addition, trim and odd-size pieces, such as broken shrimp, can be upcycled into premium menu specialties, and overproduction can be deployed in new items like salmon salad.

In addition, many existing menu specialties based on red meat or poultry can be recreated using fish or seafood. Though protein portion sizes will be the same, this strategy creates a completely different menu item utilizing the same inventory and prep but for the fish—an extremely efficient way to offer more variety with minimal impact on the kitchen.

These strategies work with virtually any variety of fish, including salmon, tilapia, sole and tuna, which Technomic pegs as the most menued species.

Taking this approach results in seafood dishes that consumers will crave. “We pride ourselves on the fact that all of our food is appealing and approachable, including our seafood,” says David E. Goldstein, Chief Operating Officer for Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, with about two dozen fast-casual locations in Southern California.

That’s because most of Sharky’s menu is on the “choose your protein” model, allowing guests to pick a taco, burrito, salad or “power plate” and specify chicken or steak, tofu or seafood, including shrimp, wild-caught salmon, or a wild-caught fish of the day. Not only does seafood satisfy customer desire for healthful variety and personalization, it also fits in perfectly with Sharky’s “Feel Good about Eating” mantra, which touts all-natural chicken and beef; organic produce, beans and grains; and wild-caught fish, including Alaska salmon, pollock and cod.

Creative limited-time offers such as tempura cod tacos and new items like the Wild Salmon “Lite” Burrito (grilled wild salmon in a nori-lined whole wheat tortilla with organic poblano brown rice, avocado, sliced cucumber, shredded cabbage and chili sesame aioli) build excitement. They’re flavorful, fun and different from what the competition is selling.

Since implementing its rotating catch-of-the-day program—bolstered by informative point-of purchase “fish boards”—sales of seafood have increased from 5 percent of the mix in 2009 to 12-13 percent today. “Seafood is an important part of our culinary-driven food philosophy and it appeals very much to our target audience,” notes Goldstein. 

This post is sponsored by Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

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