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Go Fish

05 January 2006

High-impact accents and healthful perceptions make seafood a hot commodity on chain menus.

This article first appeared in the 1 October 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Seafood is catching on big with chain diners and operators, tackling the triple feature of consumer cravings that dictate up-to-the-minute menus: robust flavors, diverse proteins and health-minded preparations.

Tellingly, casual-dining seafood alone is on track for consistent growth among 18 chain segments studied by Chicago-based Technomic Inc., including longtime consumer favorites burgers, pizza and Italian. The market research firm projects a 3.5% boost in nominal sales for the category this year and forecasts a 4% rise in 2006, on top of a 3.3% increase last year.

Such evidence of strong consumer demand, backed by a consensus among operators that seafood's tide is rising, smacks of opportunities that extend beyond seafood-centric concepts, as chains of all menu persuasions seek the right fish options for their menus.

Befriending Beef

"Seafood is becoming more and more popular at all levels. In order to compete, you have to continue exploring that arena," says George McKerrow, co-founder of Atlanta-based Ted's Montana Grill, where grilled shrimp skewers joined the beef- and bison-heavy menu in July.

New options excite, but seafood staples still sell. Consider the recent ventures of Napa Valley Grille, a six-unit, upscale concept based in Emeryville, Calif., and Milford, Conn.-based Subway, with 24,000-plus locations worldwide.

In the past, guests stayed with basics such as salmon, shrimp and tuna; today, they're also open to less-common varieties, says Kenneth Trickilo, executive chef at Napa Valley Grille's Paramus, N.J., location, where strong sales of weekly arrivals such as Hawaiian sunfish, marlin and snapper are touted by educated waitstaff.

Trickilo's sunfish, a type of farm-raised tilapia, owes its nutty, buttery flavor to a diet that includes macadamia nut husks. A poppy-seed crust lends contrast and subtle flavor to the pan-roasted fish that is accompanied by heirloom tomato salad, organic wild rice and aged-balsamic reduction.

More familiar but no less popular among diners is the wild Alaskan salmon that headlined a regional promotion for Subway this spring. Offered hot or cold in a choice of sandwiches, wraps and salads, the sturdy product arrived in stores pre-portioned, cooked and lightly seasoned with paprika, parsley, red pepper, onions and garlic for a neutral flavor that wouldn't compete with the chain's signature toppings and condiments.

"For health reasons, seafood is a big thing," says Corporate Executive Chef Chris Martone. "Customers are asking for it, and it gives us variety on the menu."

Martone says the salmon's success and an overall increase in guest acceptance of seafood mean he will explore additional options for Subway's national menu, although the chain's size necessitates considerable planning on the supply side.

Flavor Conductors

For seafood choices cautious or adventurous, chain customers often gravitate toward mild flavor profiles that can carry the wide range of bold tastes they crave.

In the newest seafood entrée at Orlando-based Olive Garden, a rich, house-made Parmesan crust complements baked tilapia without overpowering the delicate fish in a technique that also adds texture and seals in moisture, says Terry Stanley, senior vice president of culinary and beverage.

"Seafood is an important part of Italian dining-anywhere you travel in the country, you're never more than a few hours from the coast-so we'll continue to look to Italy for continued inspiration in this category," he says.

Baton Rouge, La.-based Piccadilly Restaurants also featured Parmesan-crusted tilapia as part of a recent promotion, frying rather than baking the fish for a crisp, golden finish. The savory coating is easy to execute and eliminates the extra labor a sauce would require, says Corporate Executive Chef Gino Sclafani.

The cafeteria-style chain's newest permanent seafood addition stars shrimp, a versatile customer favorite that Sclafani plans to incorporate into more recipes in the near future.

Seasoned with blackening spices that recall Piccadilly's Cajun roots, the bite-size Gulf shrimp are sautéed in butter and tossed with fettuccine for a simple but hearty entrée that's unique among the concept's traditional fare such as roast beef, fried chicken and meatloaf.

Works Both Ways

Working from a higher-volume perspective than their independent counterparts, chain restaurants must consider how to meld their own operational needs with guests' demands in crafting successful seafood recipes.

Not only does grilled mahi mahi with caper vinaigrette and lemon rice provide the light preparation and clean flavors diners savor at Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurants, but the Mediterranean-accented entrée's short cook time fits its fast-paced kitchens, says Director of Research and Development Susan Ralston.

The brewery chain also made a prep-friendly move with new Calamari Diavolo. The spicy starter swaps traditional calamari rings for thicker strips that can withstand more frying time.

"Often calamari cooks so quickly that the thinner the strips, the more chewy, rubber-band texture you get," Ralston says. "We sought a product on the thicker side so you'd get the true flavor."

Taylors, S.C.-based casual-dining chain Fatz Cafe turned to grouper when it decided to build new, nonfried seafood options around a cost-effective, recognizable product with consistent supply lines, says Eric Holman, vice president of concept development.
The delicate grouper can fall apart on the char-broiler, so the fish is sautéed instead, lightly seasoned with Cajun spices for a blackened dish; topped with tangy, house-made lemon-caper sauce; or tucked into a hoagie roll with lettuce, tomato and red onion.

Variety Show

At Po' Boys Creole Cafe, a seven-unit, Tallahassee, Fla.-based chain selling 24 varieties of namesake sandwiches, King Crawfish gumbo joined the mix in the name of menu diversity and originality, says Partner Carmen Calabrese.

The company purchases crawfish tails already boiled, seasoned and shelled and folds the sweet, tender meat into a cream-based sauce with green onions, diced tomatoes and a hearty helping of Creole seasonings. Piling the crawfish atop penne pasta offers the restaurants another specialty item, Calabrese says.

John Merlino, executive chef and director of research and development at Irvine, Calif.-based Claim Jumper Restaurants, says the veteran casual-dining chain's latest seafood additions stemmed from customers' desires for composed selections in addition to a standard "fish of the day" option served broiled, blackened or poached.

Oaxacan sea bass is sautéed and then braised in a salamander in a sauce of tomato, onion, lime and ginger broth; sautéed Mexican shrimp arrive atop sticky white rice in a spicy butter sauce; and Cedar Plank Salmon, testing in the Fresno, Calif., location, is smoked over an open flame, baked with sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce and drizzled with ponzu sauce and wasabi cream.

"Not everyone wants to eat meat, so seafood is a great alternative," Merlino says. "Once you have that buy in from customers that you can do this, the sky's the limit."

Katrina's Effects

In the ongoing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the United States' seafood industry struggles with the deadly storm's devastating economic blows.

Oyster supplies have been hardest hit by the destruction of Louisiana's fisheries. Patrick Banks, marine biologist in charge of oyster management at the Baton Rouge, La.-based Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, says the necessary habitat oyster larvae need to settle on the water's bottom won't be able to be replaced until spring 2006 at the earliest, and it would take two to three years from that point for any oysters to be available for market.

The region produces about 40% of oysters and 10% of shrimp consumed in the United States, said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va., in a Reuters report. With the exception of Gulf shrimp, overall shrimp supplies shouldn't suffer, he said, since 90% of shrimp eaten here is imported.

On a positive note, Louisiana crawfish and catfish producers-most located outside the areas affected by Katrina-avoided large-scale damage, according to early reports from Louisiana State University AgCenter's Aquaculture Research Station in Baton Rouge, La.

Catch of the Day

Finding out what's next on the seafood spectrum is part of the job description for Wayne Schick, corporate executive chef at Columbus, Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, parent company of the12-unit Mitchell's Fish Market. Below, Schick offers some quick hits on what customers are looking for from the fruits of the sea:

  • Salmon remains popular, but options such as tilapia and Alaskan halibut are gaining ground with easier sourcing and more attractive economics.

  • Health-minded guests are demanding more grilled, baked and blackened dishes versus those fried or sautéed.

  • Diners are leaning toward olive oil versus butter; citrus flavors; bold tastes and increasingly, more unique options. "A lot of people started eating seafood because it's healthy, and once they start eating it they're intrigued by the opportunities. They're branching out to see what else they like," Schick says.

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