With Lent kicking off Wednesday, QSR players have once again shifted the spotlight to their seafood offerings. And while these campaigns will predictably fade come mid-April, seafood itself is poised for a growth opportunity.
Culver's, for example, first rolled out a fish promotion in 2012 and it was "far and away a record-breaking year," according to VP of Marketing David Stidham. In 2013, the chain was on par with those numbers, and it expects similar results this year. Both Walleye and Cod sales continue to climb annually at Culver's.
According to Darren Tristano, EVP at Technomic, there are a few reasons for the seafood surge, namely the increased inclination toward a sustainable supply chain, and the fast-paced growth of the value-conscious consumer.
To kick-off the New Year, for example, Arby's re-released its Reel Big Fillet fish sandwich, and partnered with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to ensure a commitment to using sustainable resources.
"What we're starting to see now is that concepts taking a sustainable sourcing angle, which works very well for seafood and hits on consumer demand," he said. "There has been more stewardship for sustainable practices and the term is showing up on menus more. McDonald's has been doing this with its Filet-O-Fish, and it's one of the rare instances within the limited-service segment. The opportunity is there and it's interesting to customers."
Healthy and perceived healthy benefit
In addition to fitting the sustainability demand, major seafood concepts are branding more toward healthy or perceived healthy messaging. Captain D's, for example, is revamping its menu this year to focus mostly on a grilled lineup, while Long John Silver's transitioned away from transfat last year and is also planning a menu remodel this year.
Such a health-inspired focus works well for seafood platforms, Tristano said.
"This should help (seafood concepts) reach a nontraditional customer — the younger generation. Cravability is strong for seafood, but it has typically appealed to older generations and ethnic minorities such as Hispanic and African Americans," he said. "Their consumers have aged, but they continue to try and get younger consumers and can do that with a focus on health and wellness."
This is the impetus behind Long John Silver's new campaign aimed at "contemporizing the brand to make it more relevant for how consumers eat today," according to CMO Charles St. Clair. The company teamed up with the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the essential nutritional benefits of eating seafood.
"We offer a variety of seafood choices including baked cod and baked shrimp to satisfy a broad range of consumer taste options from indulgent to lighter tasting," St. Clair in a news release.
Other major QSRs are also getting the memo. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's introduced a charbroiled Atlantic cod sandwich for the first time last year, claiming to be the first major brands to do so.
"As we found when we introduced the first line of charbroiled turkey burgers more than two years ago, people are ready for lighter fare as long as they don't have to sacrifice flavor," Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, said in a news release.
Opportunities beyond Lent
Although seafood campaigns begin to pick up around March every year, Tristano said they are about more than a religious observance.
"These promotions also to give fans and frequent users new news. Brands need to add seasonal offerings like this to give customers a reason to come into the store," he said.
He points to Popeyes as a reason why the future looks bright for seafood.
"The big opportunity comes with the concepts — and this is why Popeyes is so successful — that give you more variety," he said. "I wouldn't say Captain D's and Long John Silver's should add fried chicken, but it's the reason Popeyes has been successful — the variety and the focus on quality."
Seafood concepts will continue to thrive in low demographic areas, Tristano said, and that could also provide a advantage.
"To me, they're very much under the radar compared to the rest of the QSR industry, which is becoming much more competitive," he said. "Under the radar can be good. No one's going after you. The bottom line is you don't see seafood menued enough. You're going to have one option at the big chains because they have to, but there is definitely a place for growth and opportunity in this space."
QSR Lenten promotions
Besides LJS' and Captain D's new campaigns, and Arby's Reel Big Fish promotion, here are some other QSR Lenten promotions this year.
- White Castle has brought back its fish Nibblers and shrimp Nibblers, and is also featuring clam strips and a fish slider — lightly breaded Alaska Pollock with cheese.
- Culver's "Catch of the Day" online promotion was created to drive awareness of the North Atlantic Cod offerings, Stidham said. Via Facebook, guests "cast a lure" into the water, and winning guests will receive a coupon for either a buy-one-get-one North Atlantic Cod Filet Sandwich or $1 off a value basket. Guests can play up to three times a day through March 7. The more they play, the bigger their chances of winning the grand prize, which is $500 in Culver's gift cards.
- Wendy's Premium Cod sandwich has returned in time for Lent and will be available nationwide for a limited time. According to a news release, the sandwich features a 100-percent North Pacific hand-cut cod fillet, lightly breaded in crispy panko crumbs and topped with lettuce and tartar sauce.
- Church's Chicken has brought back its seafood menu, including two fish fillets or an order of zesty shrimp, each baked and served with fries and a honey-drizzled biscuit.
- Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is celebrating "Seafood Mardi Gras" during March and April by bringing back the Butterfly Shrimp Tackle Box and Cajun Surf & Turf. Additionally, the brand added seven new permanent menu items, including the Cajun Fish, catfish, Popcorn Shrimp and Fish and Popcorn Shrimp.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.