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U.S. seafood restaurant chains bounced back in 2011, as the economy improved and more consumers returned to dining out.

According to Technomic’s new “Top 500” restaurant chain report, the 19 casual-dining seafood chains in the top 500 grossed USD 5 billion in sales in 2011, with an average sales growth rate of 2.5 percent.

Overall, the nation’s 500 largest chains registered a 3.4 percent sales increase in 2011, a sharp improvement over a 1.8 percent increase in 2010.

The seafood chains with the highest sales growth from 2010 to 2011 were Joe’s Crab Shack (12.1 percent), Chart House (9.6 percent), Bonefish Grill (9.6 percent), Roy’s Restaurants (7.7 percent) and Red Lobster (6.2 percent). Other top gainers were Legal Sea Foods (3.9 percent), Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (3.6 percent), Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen (3.1 percent) and Landry’s Seafood House (2.9 percent).

Red Lobster realized near-record sales growth in 2011, demonstrating a rebound from its “struggles” over the last five years, said Darren Tristano, executive VP of foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic, which is based in Chicago.

“Red Lobster has contemporized a number of restaurants, making them more appealing — not just on the outside, but also on the inside. And, for those in the lower to middle class who would like to dine at Red Lobster, they have made it more affordable and within reach,” Tristano said.

Joe’s Crab Shack added units and improved its advertising and marketing in 2011, according to Tristano. “They have done a really nice job of creating ads around their products and creating a very festive, high-energy shack concept,” he said.

Bonefish Grill’s sales have improved due to the chain marketing its contemporary concept that is “a step above casual but a step below fine dining.”

“It’s a nice niche. They don’t seem to have a lot of competition in that area,” said Tristano.

As for upscale seafood chains, sales at Ocean Prime jumped 23.1 percent in 2011, while sales at Mitchell’s Fish Market edged up 2.6 percent; sales at Oceanaire Seafood Room were flat in 2011.

Some seafood chains have also benefitted from the overall growth in the full-service restaurant segment, which experienced a 2.8 percent sales increase in 2011. Sales at full-service seafood chains grew 5.2 percent, edging out sales at full-service steak concepts at 5.1 percent, according to Technomic.


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