Chefs, don’t expect sustainability alone to boost your fish sales

Published on
March 23, 2015

Restaurants shouldn’t rely on sustainability messages to sell more seafood, instead they need to be more innovative in the kitchen and inspiring with their menu listings, finds a new study conducted into seafood within the foodservice sector by consumer research consultancy RDSi on behalf of the U.K. Seafish Authority.

With more than half the U.K. population claiming to eat out-of-home (OOH) at least once a week, Seafish tasked RDSi with two specific objectives: Firstly, to understand the barriers to increasing the presence of seafood on menus in the foodservice sector; and secondly, to achieve a holistic understanding of the sustainability, provenance and ethical certification needs of foodservice throughout the supply chain.

Researchers discovered that consumers are very much in control of the demand within foodservice and dictate what appears on restaurant menus, explained Caroline Hughes, associate director at RDSi. But while this and a resurgence in OOH eating presents the opportunity to encourage more fish consumption, seafood continues to miss out to chicken and beef when it comes to U.K. consumers ordering their center-plate proteins.

According to RDSi’s findings, chicken was perceived by consumers as the “safe option,” while steak in particular was seen as “the most treaty menu item,” said Hughes.

Of those people surveyed that choose not to eat fish OOH, which equated to three in 10 diners, the biggest barriers were: don’t like the taste (31 percent); don’t like bones (26 percent); don’t like the smell (18 percent); not sure I’ll like it (17 percent); and concerns over freshness and quality (13 percent).

For those that do eat seafood OOH, the main motivations were taste (28 percent) and health (17 percent). However, the researchers also found a number of strong barriers among the fish eaters, including: don’t like bones (35 percent); too expensive (34 percent); lack of choice on the menu (29 percent); and the perception that it’s not a treat compared with other protein options (17 percent).

“We found that there are two very different states of play with fish. On one side, we are hearing that people want to be inspired when they eat out; they want something different and new, and they also trust the chef. But on the other side, we hear people talking about safety and avoiding unfamiliar species because they don’t know what they will taste like. There’s a fear of the unknown,” said Hughes.

“The menus need to work really hard to encourage people to choose those [seafood] options. Front of house staff need to play their part too and reassure those customers on suitability, taste and ease of eating. These are the things consumers are asking about and if they are not sure, they will revert back to what they know. It’s a balancing act but it will allow people to do what they want to do, which is be a bit more adventurous.”

Hughes also acknowledged that while sustainability is a priority for consumers buying groceries, when it comes to OOH eating, it “wasn’t on the radar” and “not of interest” to the majority of those people surveyed.

“It’s simply not on the agenda of most diners,” said Hughes. “We had to prompt a lot of people to talk about it at all. They are not actively seeking out the information in the restaurant – they are asking what it tastes like, not where it has come from.”

She conceded that diners tend to trust restaurants and chefs to be doing the right thing when it comes to sourcing.

“People are still interested in sustainability and restaurants can talk about sustainability on their menus but it’s not going to be the thing that gets people to order it more.”

Moving forward, RDSi and Seafish have suggested a “dual strategy” to encourage consumers to eat more fish: Firstly, to challenge perceptions and educate consumers that fish is tasty, satisfying, enjoyable and not just the light, healthy option; and secondly, for restaurants to move beyond traditional favorites and staples and be more creative with their menus.

Beware the promiscuous diner

The U.K. foodservice sector has grown 0.9 percent in the past 12 months and is in much better shape than most other western European markets. This is thanks to strong GDP growth of 3.4 percent, which has brought greater consumer confidence, as well as the huge diversity that now exists in the U.K. restaurant market, said Cyril Lavenant, director foodservice U.K. and France for NPD Crest.

“People are looking to spend more and eating out is the main beneficiary,” said Lavenant.

He added that the OOH eating market has become increasingly competitive while consumers have become much more demanding, making it “crucial” to know what they want.

“With more restaurant operators offering more choice, the consumer has become less loyal and much more promiscuous. This is good for consumers but not for the operators. As a result, convenience is becoming less and less important when choosing a restaurant, while quality, choice and fulfilling cravings have all become much more important.”

The total spend in OOH eating last year increased 2 percent to GBP 50.8 billion (EUR 70.8 million, USD 75.7 million), based on 11 billion restaurant visits. But while the United Kingdom has the only foodservice sector in the EU to record growth last year, the sales value was still 5.5 percent less than it was in pre-recession 2008.

“It’s going to take three to five years to get back to that level,” said Lavenant.

Nevertheless, one of the main growth areas and biggest causes for optimism has been families eating out, with sales up 11 percent on 2009, he said.

Lavenant also confirmed that OOH protein sales increased 3.8 percent last year, but “frustratingly” seafood was the only protein that didn’t experience growth. He attributes this to its relatively high price compared with other proteins and said he believes this consumer perception will become more pronounced in the future due to the competitive nature of the sector and the growing trend of restaurants offering so-called “meal deals.”

“There is clearly something to address. Seafood is facing very strong competition; we need to diversify, find new ways for people to consume it and make it more interesting on the menu,” he said.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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