Fast casuals catch a wave

Seafood fills a niche in the segment—for those able to meet its operational challenges

The fried fish sandwich is a staple in limited service, but few chains have taken a deeper dive. Lately, however, the demand for healthier options is pushing frying to the back burner, according to Chicago research firm, Food Genius. Grilled, broiled or blackened seafood is found on 37 percent of chain menus in the segment, while fried fish appears on 31 percent. And fast casuals—known for bringing better burgers, pizza, burritos and sandwiches to the dining public—are leading the charge, turning more attention to healthy seafood preps.

Carlsbad, Calif.-based Rubio’s is riding the wave, gradually transitioning to Rubio’s Coastal Grill, a reconcepting that shifts its focus from a Mexican to a seafood theme with its signature fish tacos as the star. “We saw sales and transaction growth over the past three years in salads and grilled items,” says Ralph Rubio, founder of the 190-unit chain. Now, guests can now choose grilled mahi mahi, tilapia, salmon or shrimp—all sustainably sourced—in salads, rice bowls and burritos in addition to its tacos.

In making the switch, Rubio’s had to figure out how to deliver more grilled items without adding to transaction times and labor. A few locations are currently testing conveyor ovens that reach a temperature of 625 F and grill the fish from the bottom and top at the same time, for a total of two minutes; a computer controls temperature and time, eliminating human error. Changing over to the higher-tech equipment will be expensive, Rubio admits, but throughput, consistency and yield all improve, making it a solid investment for the reimagined concept. “We can leverage the quality of the end product to charge a little more,” he says. Right now, average check is $12.

Offering chef-driven seafood options within the fast-casual check average range of $9 to $13 can be a challenge. At Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Slapfish, a three-unit “modern seafood shack,” chef and founder Andrew Gruel keeps food costs down by applying strategies he learned as a food-truck operator. “I worked directly with fishermen, so before I even opened the first Slapfish, I established my supply lines,” he says. Gruel also set up cold-storage facilities so he can buy 10,000 pounds of fish at once, locking in wholesale prices.

With these operational strategies in place, Gruel is reinventing well-known dishes with his own twist. He has standardized all the recipes and stores them in the cloud, so cooks can access them via iPads at each location. Examples include a riff on the classic lobster roll featuring a made-from-scratch lobster hot dog, chowder fries (french fries covered with creamy clam chowder for a spin on poutine) and a banh mi burrito filled with barbecued mahi mahi, cucumber, carrots and peppers. Classics such as fish tacos and fish and chips also are available, grilled or fried. “Orders come in around 60-40, grilled to fried,” says Gruel.

Donna Lee, a veteran of Noodles & Company, filled what she saw as a void in the market when she opened Chicago’s Brown Bag Seafood in May. “There was no way to get high-quality seafood [in Chicago] in a fast-casual format,” says the founding partner. So she went about creating a volume model with frequent product rotation and ease of execution. She located in a high-traffic area to sustain twice daily deliveries of fresh seafood, and the mix-and-match menu gives Lee the flexibility to swap out one species for another to take advantage of availability and price. Entrees range from $7.99 to $11.99, depending on choice of seafood.

Fast casual’s penchant for customization adapts well to the seafood concept, Lee finds. Brown Bag’s customers, which break down to a 60-40 ratio of dine-in and takeout, first choose a fish (teriyaki-scallion salmon, broiled lemon whitefish, shrimp and more), then specify one of five applications (sub sandwich, salad, tacos, “straight up” or “powerbox.” The last item features seafood with quinoa and wild rice over spinach flavored with herbs and lemon. “We encourage customization by giving people lots of options, from super-healthy to indulgent, from simple to labor-intensive,” says Lee. By the beginning of August, Brown Bag Seafood closed its biggest day at 475 tickets.

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