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Diners want more mariscos on restaurant menus
By Kathleen Furore
“Mexican Summer” is the name of the menu Margarita’s Mexican Restaurants has been touting all season. And one glance at the seasonal “Main Dish” selections section shows a bill of fare swimming with seafood.
Shrimp Tostadas, Salmon Salad, Coconut Shrimp Salad, Salmon Tacos, Tuna Tacos and Habanero Lime Salmon take star billing; the Carnitas Chile Relleno is the only non-seafood entrée the menu offers.
“Seafood plays a large part in our current limited-time specials menu,” says Brisbane Vaillancourt, director of training, Margarita’s, an award-winning regional chain with 24 locations throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. “We are also updating our main menu later this summer and adding in a number of seafood dishes from this and past specials menus.”
And while seafood accounts for less than half of the company’s sales, Vaillancourt reports that seafood sales have been increasing steadily as Margarita’s expands its seafood selections.
“Our guests have welcomed the new dishes that we’ve created and have been clamoring for more seafood,” she says.
And the Survey Shows...Diners Want More Seafood
Mexico is geographically blessed with two seacoasts, making fish and other seafood plentiful in restaurants and fish markets throughout the country. Yet U.S. diners typically don’t consider seafood a Mexican staple.
As Margarita’s has discovered, that is changing, as consumers become increasingly aware of the health benefits mariscos bring. Fish, for example, is a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids (proven to boost heart health)—all reasons the American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week.
That nutritional profile is impacting what restaurant patrons want. According to Technomic’s 2013 “Family-Style Restaurant Consumer Trend Report,” the availability of healthy menu offerings is important to 52 percent of diners at family-style eateries, and 61 percent would pay more for “fresh” foods. In addition, seafood items and Mexican dishes were among items topping consumers’ wish lists when asked about their “unmet needs.”
Savvy restaurants are responding. The family-style restaurants Technomic tracks added nearly 30 seafood dishes during the fourth quarter of 2012, with items such as grilled and baked fish, seafood tacos, fish sandwiches and wraps appearing more frequently on the menu.
Seafood, it appears, can actually draw customers to your restaurant. According to the Alaska Seafood: Consumer Trends and Seafood Preferences, a 2011 Alaska Seafood Marketing study of consumers who frequent QSR or casual chain restaurants at least five times per month and eat seafood at least three times per month, consumers are eating more fish and seafood at restaurants than they do at home.
Popular “Fishy” Dishes
Customers want more seafood. But just what do they prefer in the fishy dishes they order?
Hand-held seafood entrées is one answer. According to research from Datassentials released in August 2012, they are among the fastest growing items on U.S. restaurant menus. Seafood sliders soared 200 percent on menus from 2007 to 2011, while fish tacos were featured on 60 percent more menus during the same time period, Datassentials reports.
At Margarita’s, a deeper dive into customer favorites shows shrimp is booming.
“Traditionally, we’ve had a lot of luck with shrimp. Our Aztec Shrimp Quesadilla is one of our most popular appetizers. We’ve also done well with the Mexican Shrimp Fajitas and Shrimp Tacos,” Vaillancourt says.
The Mayan Shrimp is another popular appetizer. “We coat the shrimp with our ‘magic dust,’ lightly fry it and toss it in chipotle aioli. Then it is served in a tortilla bowl with roasted corn salsa and avocado,” she says.
Salmon and Ahi Tuna dishes, too, are on the upswing of late. “Two of the upcoming items that will debut in August are a Habanero Lime Salmon and Ahi Tuna Salad,” Vaillancourt adds.
Price, of course, is an important factor in selling seafood, research from NPD Group, presented during the January 2013 Global Seafood Market Conference in Santa Monica, Calif., reveals.
“Seafood has high value perception, but Americans are sensitive about what they are spending at restaurants,” NPD’s Warren Solocheck said in a story at seafoodsource.com. The sweet spot—what diners are willing to pay for a seafood lunch at casual-dining eateries—is $10 to $15 per entrée. That price escalates only slightly to $15 to $20 for dinner, research shows.
Restaurants hoping to land a large catch of seafood sales are striving to hit that sweet spot.
“With all of our products, the proteins especially, our purchasing team does a great job negotiating for the best product at the best possible prices,” Vaillancourt says. “As a result we are able to deliver quality dishes at value prices. Our Habanero Lime Salmon features an 8-ounce salmon filet that would go for $20 to $25 at other restaurants and we are able to offer it at $16.99.”
The same is true at 100% Agave Mexican Grill and Cantina, which debuted last March in Denver. The highest-priced seafood entrée on the menu is the $19 Pescado de Zarandeado, a whole grilled and marinated red snapper served with mango salad. All other seafood offerings including the Enchilada Mixtas de Mariscos (two crab and shrimp enchiladas in poblano cream sauce), Camarones ala Diable con Tequila (tequila-sauteed shrimp in a spicy red sauce), and Tilapia con Jamaica (grilled tilapia filet in a chipotle-jamaica sauce) come in at just $16.
Sustainability and Sourcing
Where fish and seafood come from is increasingly important to consumers. In the National Restaurant Association’s 2013 “What’s Hot Survey,” locally sourced and sustainable seafood were among the top trends.
Other industry research echoes those findings.
According to research from Alaska Seafood Marketing, consumers prefer "wild" and "ocean caught" seafood versus "farm-raised."
And Technomic’s MenuMonitor reports that the inclusion of point of origin sourcing on seafood entrees increased five percent in the past year and 13 percent over the past two years. Restaurant menus are touting all sorts of locations, including Alaskan, Atlantic, Gulf, Idaho, Louisiana, Nantucket, New Zealand, Norwegian and Pacific, with Atlantic and Alaskan the most frequently used descriptors, research shows.
Rubio’s—the company that introduced The Original Fish Taco to America way back in 1983—is one company that strives to offer seafood that is certified sustainable or from responsibly managed fisheries that maintain healthy populations and ecosystems.
Currently, a majority of Rubio’s seafood, including the Coastal Trio—(an Original Fish Taco, Salsa Verde Shrimp Taco and Blackened Tilapia Taco) the company debuted as a Celebration Special July 31—meets that goal.
The Genuine Wild Alaska Pollock, for example, is sourced directly from Alaska and featured in The Original Fish Taco, Fish Taco Especial, Avocado Corn Fish Taco and Beer-Battered Fish Burrito.
"Sustainability efforts within the last 10 to 20 years have helped protect our resources," co-founder Ralph Rubio says. "For example, Alaska Pollock, which is used in our most popular item—the Original Fish Taco—was extremely distressed about 10 to 15 years ago. Through responsible fishing and more conscious purchasing practices the industry as a whole was able to allow this particular species to thrive again. This is just one example, but applies across many species.”
The fisheries that provide product for Rubio’s Atlantic Salmon Taco and Atlantic Salmon Burrito, and the shrimp farms that provide seafood for the Grilled Shrimp Burrito, Grilled Gourmet Taco with Shrimp, Grilled Grande Bowl with Shrimp, Chipotle Orange Shrimp Salad and Salsa Verde Shrimp Taco are certified as sustainable in accordance with Best Aquaculture Practices.
The Pacific Mahi Mahi in the Pacific Mahi Mahi Taco, Mango Habanero Mahi Mahi Taco, Pacific Mahi Mahi Burrito, and HealthMex Mahi Mahi Burrito is wild caught. And the tilapia in the Regal Springs Tilapia Tacos is sourced from farms that are certified as sustainable in accordance with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).
Just how important is sustainability to Rubio's customers?
“It's difficult to generalize who it's most important to because there is such a large spectrum,” Rubio says, noting that millennials are more conscientious about what they eat and where it comes from than older customers.
"Overall global awareness of sustainable fishing practices has increased within the last 10 years," he continues. "A lot of this is attributed to education. At Rubio's, we start by educating then practice – and that’s how you gain the results."
Online Tools for Seafood Education
Alaska Seafood and CIA Launch Site
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), recently launched an online learning tool for chefs and foodservice industry professionals. The ProChef website provides in-depth information on how to use Alaska seafood, utilizing contemporary techniques and global herbs and spices.
Along with innovative chef-developed recipes—many inspired by Latin cuisine—the website offers recipe demonstration videos by CIA chefs and detailed information on how to prepare and handle the Alaska seafood species. It also provides an overview of the species, outlining the different flavor profiles and describing the specific harvesting methods. A video series featuring top restaurant chefs preparing Alaska seafood dishes such as Oven-Roasted Cilantro-Lime Alaska Halibut and Crunchy Alaska King Crab Tostones in the teaching kitchens of the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., is also available. To learn more, visit www.ciaprochef.com/alaskaseafood.
“FishChoice 2013”—An Online Connection to Sustainable Seafood Suppliers
FishChoice, Inc. (FCI) is an online, sustainable seafood-sourcing tool that connects retail, restaurant, and institutional seafood buyers to sustainable seafood suppliers.
The new “FishChoice 2013” platform offers more than 2,700 product listings from nearly 400 companies that restaurants and other seafood buyers can search by filters such as seafood origin, seasonal availability, and supplier’s distribution area. Businesses also have new options to learn more about where their seafood is sourced, with detailed supplier profiles, buying guides, and an industry resources section.
FishChoice.com aggregates up-to-date, science-based seafood information from its sustainability partners, then adds the corresponding products, suppliers, and relevant supporting information to the website. Those partners include the Seafood Watch Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute, SeaChoice, Ocean Wise, NOAA Fisheries, and the Marine Stewardship Council. For more information, visit www.fishchoice.com.