When Ivar’s seafood chain decided recently to add a value meal for $7.99 to its existing quick-service restaurant menu, it wasn’t enough to stick to the classic combinations such as fish and chips, says Kirsten Wlaschin, director of marketing for the chain. “Even in this recession, we wanted to offer the customer as many options as possible,” she says. The result: the new Create-A-Combo meal, which includes a choice of one entrée (clams ’n chips; a two-piece original fish ’n chips; or a baby prawns and chips), one side item (a cup of red or white clam chowder or smoked salmon chowder; shrimp cocktail; or a side Caesar salad) and a regular drink (soft drink, milk, coffee, or tea).
In a 2008 consumer research study by The Hale Group commissioned by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), consumers not only demonstrated a strong interest in seafood, but said they are also eating more seafood at chain restaurants than they did two years ago. The study also found that the menu is still the most influential factor in the decision-making process. The hook: Chains that offer limited seafood dishes might find an ocean of opportunities to grow their business by adding more seafood offerings to their menus.
QSR spoke to a number of leaders in the seafood industry about the strategies they are using to connect with this consumer need. From fresh flavorings, breading, sauces, and marinades to health-supportive entrées, restaurants are finding successful ways to incorporate more seafood onto their existing menus that are both productive and profitable.
The Health Angle
Seafood and healthy eating seem to be a natural fit. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that modest consumption of fish, especially species that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, reduces risk of coronary death by 36 percent and the rate of death by 17 percent. For consumers, then, the benefits of modest fish consumption, which is characterized as one to two times per week, far outweigh the potential risks.
“One of the benefits of seafood is that, whether you grill, bake, or broil it, it is inherently healthy,” says Paula Vissing, senior vice president of purchasing/research and development for Captain D’s seafood restaurant chain. A few years ago, Captain D’s relaunched its nonfried menu offerings in response to consumer desire for more healthful dishes. The company not only added grilled versions of popular seafood favorites such as shrimp skewers, wild Alaskan salmon, and tilapia dishes, but created interesting sauces to accompany them such as a ginger teriyaki, sweet chili basil, and scampi sauces. The revamp was worth it, Vissing says: “Our customers love having the alternatives to our fried menu offerings.”
The opportunities to expand grilled items aren’t limited to hot entrées. Ivar’s restaurants offer a Caesar salad line that features a choice of grilled Alaskan Yukon salmon, Alaskan halibut, mahi mahi, Dungeness crab, or shrimp. For more upscale fare, McCormick and Schmick’s seafood restaurants include menu items such as a seared rare yellowfin tuna nicoise salad with green beans, olives, potatoes, and balsamic vinaigrette and a seafood cobb salad with bay shrimp, scallops, crab, avocado, and blue cheese.
Still, quick-service restaurants looking to expand don’t have to go quite that far to offer a greater perceived value to their customers, experts say. “A simple grilled fish that allows the freshness, texture, and flavor of the seafood to speak for itself can be enough,” says Jann Dickerson of the ASMI in San Francisco.
“There is a wonderful new pre-grilled Alaska salmon fillet available that delivers whole muscle ‘bite’ with tender, flaky, and juicy meat. The Alaska pink salmon fillet is portioned, marinated, fully cooked, and has grill marks and can be seasoned or flavor-marinated and ready to go on a sandwich or a salad,” she says. With the right sourcing, a quick-service restaurant can add healthy items to its existing menu without adding to the amount of labor involved.