Ever wondered how you can increase sales of fish dishes on your menu? Attendees at The Caterer's Breakfast Briefing at the Dorchester hotel last month were given a heads-up when Seafish presented its recently commissioned research. Rosalind Mullen reeled in some facts
Fear of bones, concerns about freshness and the need to feel satisfied are all barriers to your guests ordering fish. But arguably, by addressing these issues, restaurateurs could turn this lack of appetite around and increase the popularity of fish on menus.
Delegates in the crowded room at The Caterer's Breakfast Briefing at London's Dorchester hotel in March heard that half the population claim to eat in restaurants once a week, but most will order meat or poultry. This spells a substantial opportunity to encourage more fish consumption.
"Penetration of seafood in the UK is relatively high, with about 90% of consumers eating fish in a given year," said Andy Gray, trade marketing manager at Seafish.
"Frequency of consumption, however, is low, with only about a third of consumers eating fish at least twice a week."
Key findings have revealed that 72% of dishes that diners surveyed would consider ordering are fish, but the most popular choices were chicken at 87% and beef at 76%.
Caroline Hughes, associate director at research agency RDSi, explained: "Chicken is a safe option. People know what it tastes like. Beef is also seen as a safe option and people order it because it is satisfying and filling."
A number of issues were cited as reasons for why people don't choose fish. Some 31% said they didn't like the taste, 26% fear bones, 18% don't like the smell, 17% were not sure they would like it, and 13% were concerned about freshness and would only order fish in restaurants they "trust to do it right".
Hughes was realistic that the 28% of diners who never choose fish were unlikely to be converted, but reckoned there was plenty of scope to sway the others.
Barriers to choice
Motivations for choosing fish indicate that diners see it as a lighter, healthier option compared with meat or poultry and they find it challenging to cook at home. Some 28% said they loved eating fish in a restaurant because it is cooked well, 17% opted for it as the healthy option, 15% for a change because they don't eat it at home and 9% because it is part of the menu where you are likely to find something you haven't tried before.
However, some 34% of those who did order fish didn't order it more often because they found it too expensive, while 17% said it was not enough of a naughty treat. One opportunity highlighted was that nearly a third of people (29%) didn't order it more often because they felt there wasn't
enough choice of fish on the menu. However, while they were open to new dishes, they were also fearful of unfamiliar species.
"There are two states of play," said Hughes. "People want to be inspired, but they also want to trust the chef when they eat out and don't want to order the unknown."
The solution, reckoned the research team, is to make the menu work hard to give customers reassuring information about the type of fish, the cut, how it is cooked and so on. Front of house staff need to be trained and be able to describe the taste and texture to sell the dish.
In fact, 44% of diners are more likely to choose fish if there is a description of the taste; 30% if there is a description of the texture; and 31% if they know the health benefits.
That said, the health benefits, such as omega 3 oils, can work against it, as many diners fear that "healthy" food will be less satisfying or less of a treat.
"There is a need to challenge perceptions," said Hughes. "The healthy image can be detrimental. Diners want to be filled up and reassured about what accompaniments will be served with the fish."
Hughes' fellow associate director at RDSi, Sam Bannister, added: "The challenge is to educate consumers."
Bannister broke down the opportunities to do this by establishment type. He pointed out that favourites such as fish and chips served in pub chains meet consumer needs because the species isn't questioned and diners see it as a safe, satisfying option. He drew attention to the success of words used on the menu descriptions, such as jumbo, hand-cut or gourmet.
Bannister suggested that high-street chains should tempt diners with dish descriptions on menus, rather than focus on the species.
"Small dishes and starters in chains such as La Tasca or Wagamama do introduce new species, but the emphasis is on the flavours," he said.
And specialist chains should avoid always providing the species and use specials boards to avoid committing to one species. They can also place fish in its own section on the menu to create a reassuring sense of expertise.
Small independents, meanwhile, could build on the trust they have with loyal customers to introduce new fish dishes. Fine-dining restaurants already use emotive language on their menus and are well-placed to champion lesser-known species.
Bannister reiterated that fish faces strong competition on menus, missing out on cost, variety, size and satisfaction. However, its chances of being chosen by diners can be enhanced through offering carefully considered accompaniments and improving taste descriptions so it is seen as a less risky choice.
"They know sustainability is good, but including details on the menu won't push people into trying it more often," said Bannister.
Cyril Lavenant, director of foodservice UK and France at the NPD Group, took to the floor to reveal the sections of your customer base where opportunities lie by using the NPD's Crest tracking service.
"It's enticing. The foodservice market is in much better shape than in other western European markets, though it is still below 2008 levels," he said.
The "family eating out" has grown 11% since 2009 and this sector is more valuable than parties of adults, with on average a 16% higher bill and a party size that is 90% bigger, which is worth 2.2 times more.
What consumers increasingly want when eating out is something "different or new", which has grown by 15%. This has seen small chains double in the past two years, particularly in London with Five Guys, Pho, the Breakfast Club and so on.
"More choice means the consumer has become promiscuous," said Lavenant, with quality, choice and craving trouncing habit or convenience. Diners are also ordering more protein, up by 3.8%, so it is strange that seafood has actually dropped by -0.1%, compared with a 0.4% rise in pork, 0.5% in beef or veal and 0.7% in poultry.
Part of the problem is that seafood remains relatively expensive, while meat is becoming more affordable.
Even so, Lavenant said, there is an opportunity to bring down the cost. For instance, seafood is more likely to be ordered with salad and followed by dessert, so there is a chance to link sales. Cyril reckoned, however, the option to follow seafood with dessert in quick-service restaurants (QSR) is missing.
"Seafood's under-trade in QSR is hugely significant," said Lavenant. "Don't be afraid to include high-value dishes in meal deals with a dessert. This will increase the perceived value for money of the meal and deliver an increased average spend."
Overall, however, he said one of the biggest areas that could be addressed by QSR was shellfish. It's an age thing: according to demographic studies, younger customers just don't choose shellfish - it tends to be the wealthier, older sections of society who eat it the most.
"Shellfish does not appeal to younger consumers and it is not seen as easy to eat. Communicating the fact that to eat shellfish is not scary, but even fun - like barbecue ribs, which are messy but some chains have managed to transform this into a fun thing - should help consumer perception," said Lavenant.
French-born Lavenant wasn't afraid to make his own cultural observation, either. "In France, we eat non-fried fish because we trust the restaurant to know how to cook it. In England I have been in a fine-dining restaurant where British guests will choose fish and chips. It's about reassurance."
- Cyril Lavenant, director of foodservice, UK and France, at the NPD Group, which provides global information and advisory services to help clients track markets, understand consumers and drive profitable growth.
- Caroline Hughes, associate director, at research agency RDSi. She specialises in retail, food and new product development.
- Sam Bannister, associate director at RDSi. He specialises in retail, foodservice and fast-moving consumer goods.
Top tops to sell fish on your menu
Consumers in the UK focus their seafood consumption on five main species: salmon, tuna, cod, haddock and prawns. Yet on any one day it is estimated that there is in excess of 100 different species of fish and shellfish available to purchase in the UK. Here's how you can sell moreâ¦
•Feature one or two additional species on your menu, perhaps on a rolling weekly basis, to keep the menu fresh. Offer free bite-size samples of different species to encourage customers to try something new, or a lesser-known 'species of the week' at a promotional price.
•Hake is a fish that many consumers realise they like when they've had the opportunity to taste it. Blind taste sampling tests among consumers with cod, haddock, hake, coley, and so on often throws up hake as being the tastiest of the lot.
•Equip serving staff with outline product knowledge of various seafood species to help educate customers and persuade them to choose a seafood option on the menu.
•Use simple written explanations on a menu or point-of-sale materials, explaining the provenance of seafood or comparing tastes and textures of different seafood.
•A value-for-money species for the catering sector is mackerel. Often regarded by seafood aficionados as one of the tastiest fish, mackerel lends itself to simple preparation, perhaps pan-fried or grilled and served with lightly boiled new potatoes and an accompanying leafy salad.
Source: Andy Gray, trade marketing manager at Seafish
About the research
This research was undertaken by RDSi and the NPD Group and was sponsored by Seafish. The research covered two areas:
•What the barriers are to increasing the presence of seafood on menus.
•How to achieve a holistic understanding of the sustainability, provenance and ethical certification needs of foodservice.
The team examined the views and needs of consumers, restaurants and training establishments.
The sea-to-plate journey is a challenge. Seafish aims to secure a sustainable and profitable future for the UK seafood industry. Its remit spans fishermen and processors through to importers, retailers and food service providers.
Checklist of opportunities
•Addressing the under-trade in quick-service restaurants
•Linking desserts with fish orders in quick-service restaurants
•Engaging with younger consumers and expanding the demographic reach, especially with shellfish.
Source: NPD Group
The twin challenges
â¢ Challenge perceptions and educate diners
•Move beyond reliance on a "fish is healthy" message
•Base communications around benefits to customers - "fish is tasty, satisfying and enjoyable. It's not just the light, healthy option."
â¢ Broaden repertoires and reduce reliance on age-old favourites
•Use a positive tone and message - "fish is a delicious, satisfying alternative" - more than talking about sustainability
•Work throughout the customer journey to raise awareness within retail, education and foodservice.