Thirty years ago, finding seafood on a fast-food chain's menu was as easy as navigating the Bering Sea in a canoe. There was McDonald's Filet-O-Fish. Then there was Burger King's Long Fish, the fried fish sandwich with an identity crisis. Its name changed frequently--remember the Whaler?--until the hamburger heavyweight settled on the BK Big Fish in the '90s. Even 15 years ago, seafood's presence on fast-food menus was scant.
But that's quickly changing. In just the past year-and-a-half, a number of quick-service chains have either introduced a seafood item to the menu for the first time or added more seafood items. Of course, there are a lot more fast-food joints now than there were 30 years ago. But some of these chains have been around for decades:
-- Just this week, Jack in the Box rolled out a three-item line of snack-sized sandwiches, dubbed Pita Snacks, that includes a fish fillet topped with cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce and a chipotle sauce and wrapped in a whole grain pita.
-- Just in time for Lent this year, the Del Taco Mexican chain, owned by the same company as Captain D's, added Fish & Papas and Shrimp & Papas (papas is Spanish for French fries) to the menu at its 500-plus restaurants.
-- As part of its new "Way Better Than Fast Food" ad campaign, launched in January, hamburger giant Wendy's promoted its Premium Fish Fillet sandwich, made with a hand-cut, panko-breaded Pacific cod fillet.
-- The Cabo Shrimp Burrito and Diablo Shrimp Burrito were among the four burrito items the Baja Fresh fresh-Mex chain added to the menu at its nearly 300 restaurants in September 2007.
-- KFC added the Fish Snacker, made with a breaded Alaska pollock fillet, to its three-item Snacker sandwich line in February 2007--the first time the fried chicken behemoth has ever offered seafood nationwide.
The current rush of fast-food fish items is due to consumer interest in eating healthier, or rather the perception of eating healthier, and the lagging economy. Fast-food chains see an opportunity to swipe customers from casual chains by promoting value and introducing healthier items like seafood, and they're capitalizing on it.
"Consumers continue to trade down at an increasing rate," Darren Tristano, executive VP at Chicago foodservice consultant Technomic, told me earlier this summer. "They are looking for value and continue to be guided by convenience."
As seafood's presence on fast-food menus grows, so will Americans' awareness of the protein. Who knows? Ten years from now, maybe even Dunkin' Donuts will menu seafood.
Editor's note: In observance of Labor Day, SeafoodSource News will not be published on Monday. It will resume on Tuesday.