Large-sized shrimp a foodservice winner during COVID-19 pandemic

A large vannamei shrimp in a person's hand.

Shrimp sales to the U.S. foodservice sector rebounded in 2021 from a significant drop in 2020 caused by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While overall sales haven't yet caught up to 2019, shifts in demand favored larger-sized shrimp and easier-to-prep trims, according to data shared during the National Fisheries Institute Global Seafood Market Conference in January 2022.

Roughly 275 million pounds of shrimp was sold to foodservice channels in 2021, up by 50 million pounds from 2020 – with Mexican, Latino, and Hispanic restaurants becoming the dominant seller. That total was still 6 million pounds behind 2019, but certain categories saw gains as labor pressures and price inflation shifted demand.

“For foodservice, large shrimp were in demand,” Performance Food Group Vice President of Procurement Mike Seidel said. “When you group together eight to 12s up to 26-30s, that grew by over 10 million pounds.”

According to NPD SupplyTrack data, 26-30 count shrimp saw a 12 percent bump in sales compared to 2019, gaining over 5 million pounds in sales. Larger 21-25 count and 16-20 count shrimp also saw gains over 2019. For 21-25 count, those gains amounted to 3.18 million pounds, or a 7 percent increase; and for 16-20 count sales increased by 1.85 million pounds, or a 4 percent increase.

Part of the rise in popularity of larger-sized shrimp was attributable was a growing preference for EZ Peel shrimp, according to Seidel. EZ Peel shrimp saw significant gains in sales in 2021 compared to 2019, increasing by 9 percent – or 1.4 million pounds. A lot of those shrimp fell into the larger size ranges, particularly 26-30, Seidel said.

According to the data, sales of shrimp with easier prep increased across all trims in 2021 compared to 2019, while shrimp requiring more prep required declined. Peeled and deveined, tail-off shrimp saw an increase in sales of 1 percent compared to 2019, while sales of peeled and deveined tail-on shrimp experienced a decline of 5 percent. Headless, shell-on shrimp saw the biggest drop compared to 2019, down 10 percent.

All told, the three larger sizes of shrimp – 26-30, 21-25, and 16-20 – represented 55 percent of all shrimp sold to foodservice operators in 2021.

Meanwhile, smaller-sized shrimp lost market share. Sales of small shrimp – shrimp in the 31-40 count and up sizes – declined by 14 million pounds, or 12 percent.

Notably, Seidel said, the shift took place as shrimp prices inflated between 2019 and 2021 by 14 percent overall.

“This is kind of a bit contradictory to what we have normally seen over the past several years,” Seidel said. “Historically, when you see shrimp prices inflate, you see the customer go down in size – they were using that 21-25, they drop down to a 26-30. [That way], they pay the same price as they were and they don’t have to change their menu.”

One theory for the departure from the norm, Seidel said, is that the rising inflation in other premium species pushed more customers and restaurants toward larger shrimp. While shrimp saw 14 percent inflation in 2021 compared to 2019, items like scallop, lobster, and crab all saw much higher inflation. Scallops jumped in price by 41 percent, lobster by 56 percent, and crab by 68 percent.

That means that even though larger shrimp were more expensive than they were two years ago, they are also relatively cheap compared to other large or premium shellfish. As restaurants seek to cater to customers looking for a special occasion, large shrimp becomes a value proposition.

“[Restaurants] might be saying, 'You know what? I’m going to get a little bit more shrimp, a better quality. I’m not going to be selling as much lobster, I’m not going to be selling as much scallops, I’m not going to be selling as much crab because of those prices,’” Seidel said.    

Photo courtesy of Phensri Ngamsommitr/Shutterstock


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