Can seafood rise above ‘sea of sameness’ in fast-casual dining?

If there's one seafood restaurant segment poised to grow it's fast-casual. According to a March Technomic Consumer Trend Report, seafood is mostly the domain of casual dining chains, occupying only 6 percent in the menus of American fast-casual restaurants. "The white space in between those segments leaves plenty of room for young fast-casual restaurants to develop quickly in urban, affluent areas," the report stated.

For serious seafood consumers, sustainable sourcing and organic product are highly attractive, it noted, with 86 percent of diners rating high-quality, fresh food as being more important than convenience and price. The future for fast-casual seafood is bright, it concluded. "New brands can position themselves above the 'sea of sameness' by offering bold flavor profiles or customization with a cuisine many already perceive as healthful."

There are a handful of fast-casual seafood eateries already capitalizing on these trends. Portland, Maine-based Lobster ME opened its first concept on the Las Vegas strip in 2011 and followed with two more — another on the strip and a third in Bethesda, Md. in 2014.

Lobster is the mainstay of the menu at the walk-up counter-service eateries, which feature a New England ambience and Maine-themed décor. Open for three meals a day, Lobster ME offers lobster bisque, lobster mac and cheese, lobster grilled cheese, lobster, eggs and tots, lobster rolls, fried lobster on a stick as well as shrimp ceviche and a couple of items featuring cod.

All the seafood served at Lobster ME is wild, said Kristen Bailey, VP of marketing and corporate development.

"We interview our diners regularly to find out what they like and what they think, and they really care about the provenance of everything they're eating," she said. "For us it's really about culinary innovation and fresh flavors, with Maine lobster as the hero of our menu." The crustaceans are caught in the coastal waters of Maine, processed by Cozy Harbor in Portland, Maine and shipped to the various locations.

Growth is on the horizon for Lobster ME, owned by the LEV Restaurant Group in Las Vegas. This year store openings are planned in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and a third, yet-to-be-determined location.

Another fast-casual chain experiencing rapid growth is the category leader, Captain D’s, which has added 14 franchised restaurants since December in the southeastern United States. Last year was a good one for the Nashville, Tenn.-based company with same-store sales growing for the fourth consecutive year at its 513 locations.

Across the country, at Seattle-based Ivar's Inc., which boasts 63 food establishments including 27 seafood bars and 22 walk-up counters, customers care that their seafood is wild but not that it's sustainably sourced or organic. "We do source the bulk of our seafood sustainably but it's not a key selling point," said Bob Donegan, president.

When the company couldn't find sites for new stores it opted to remodel existing restaurants, including its flagship restaurant on Pier 54, on Seattle's waterfront. When it reopens in July it will seat up to 650 people, ranking among the city’s largest restaurants.

So far the remodels have proved lucrative with 30 percent sales increases in those locations. "In every neighborhood where we have a seafood bar there's a mom-and-pop business, but there are no national or regional competitors for our seafood bars in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

Fish and chips remains Ivar’s signature offering, along with Puget Sound white clam chowder. Over the past two years the company has added grills to the fast-casual restaurants and seafood bars, giving diners the option of fried or grilled seafood. It also added fresh seafood to the bars, replacing the frozen seafood used previously in those locations.

“We’d experienced success with grilled seafood in our stadium locations, where we were able to produce 1,000 entrées in a booth within three hours,” Donegan said. “So we figured we could do the same in our free-standing locations, which are three times the size. Our customers like the idea of getting grilled fish in addition to, or in replacement of fried, but fried is still the biggest seller.”

Given Ivar’s long history and its location, sourcing fresh seafood has not been challenging, he added. “We’re one of the biggest buyers of fish in Puget Sound and we’ve had relationships with fishing companies, boats, tribes and families for 50 to 60 years. We don’t have a problem buying anything we need.”

Donegan couldn’t comment on the potential growth of fast-casual nationwide, but said there remain opportunities for growth in the Pacific Northwest. “We continue to open new stores and they continue to perform well, so even in our market there’s an opportunity to continue to grow,” he said.


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