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Fast-casual seafood primed for growth, research finds

For fast-casual operators looking to meet the demand for healthy menu items, seafood may be the answer they’ve been fishing for.

Consumers believe seafood entrees are more healthful than dishes containing beef, pork and poultry, according to findings from market-research company Technomic Inc., and 72 percent of consumers who increased their seafood purchases over the last two years say they did so out of a desire to eat healthier.

“Health is one of the primary drivers for seafood consumption,” says Anne Mills, a manager of consumer insights for Technomic. “As consumers become more health-conscious, seafood is one of the categories that can meet that demand.”

While seafood might be cost-prohibitive for some concepts, fast-casual is a segment that can really tap into seafood, thanks to its slightly higher price point, she says.

And fast-casual concepts seem eager to ride the seafood wave. California-based chain Rubio’s Coastal Grill last year changed its name from Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill and revamped its menu with a renewed focus on seafood. Removing carnitas, fried taquitos and other items from its lineup made space for offerings such as a shrimp and bacon burrito with blackened jalapenos, swordfish and seafood burritos, Ralph Rubio, the chain’s cofounder, told The Orange County Register.

Adjusting to diners’ desire for healthy options, Nashville, Tennessee-based seafood chain Captain D’s refreshed its menu in 2014 to feature grilled fish dishes in its 514 locations and has seen sales grow among its healthier offerings.

As seafood continues to hook customers, fast-casual concepts may differentiate themselves by offering diners creative seafood options that consumers can’t easily cook at home due to lack of equipment or ingredients, Mills says.

Focusing on fresh, international flavors could spur further growth and help pique diners’ interest. While lemon butter and cocktail sauce are still standard accompaniments, mango, cilantro and sesame rank among the fastest-growing seafood entrée flavors at restaurants that are part of the Top 500 chains, according to Technomic.

In addition, crossover dishes may be a key strategy for operators. Although older diners tend to eat fish more frequently than their younger counterparts, millennials are often out-of-the-box eaters, making them more likely to consider fish during non-traditional dayparts, like breakfast, or as a snack item. “Younger consumers are adventurous diners and global consumers,” Mills says. “It’s vital for (restaurants) to keep innovating to meet demand.”

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