Seafood taps into fast-casual frenzy

Published on
June 29, 2010

U.S. fast-casual chains are adding premium menu items such as lobster rolls this summer, many with a variety of sizes and pricing to fit different budgets.

For example, Panera Bread Co. rolled out a lobster sandwich on ciabatta bread in early June. The sandwich retails for USD 16.99, which is significantly higher than Panera’s other offerings.

D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches also launched several different lobster sandwich offerings this spring in various sizes and price points. They include a lobster sandwich, a lobster roll, a baked stuffed lobster sandwich and a Surf & Turf combo, which includes a lobster roll and a 4-inch steak and cheese sandwich. D’Angelo’s “Lobster Nation Meal Deal” consists of a small lobster sandwich, a small bag of chips and a medium drink for USD 11.99.

The lobster roll is sold in three sizes: small for USD 9.99, medium for USD 13.99 and large for USD 19.99. D’Angelo’s tiered pricing on lobster sandwiches reflects how many restaurants are changing their menus to appeal to a variety of customers’ pocketbooks.

“It is part of what we call a ‘ladder strategy,’ which provides items at high, mid and low price points, allowing consumers to spend based on willingness and spend restrictions,” said Darren Tristano, executive VP of Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic.

Even though an item such as Panera’s USD 16.99 lobster sandwich carries a higher price point than typical Panera sandwiches, it represents a value to consumers, compared to similar items in full-service restaurants, according to Tristano.

“These additions represent an extension of an existing trend in menu pricing, and seafood represents a great opportunity to provide healthy, better-for-you, upscale menu introductions,” he said.

Other fast-casual chains are also focusing on shrimp, salads and sandwiches, which consumers tend to view as lighter, healthier options in the summer. Panda Express recently launched a Honey Walnut Shrimp entrée and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill launched several new seafood items this May, including Fire-Grilled Shrimp Burritos and Fire-Grilled Langostino Lobster Burritos. La Madeleine Country Fresh Café in Dallas also recently added a Shrimp Salad Dijonnaise.

The trend toward premium menu items comes as the top 100 fast-casual chains watched their sales jump 4.5 percent, to USD 17.5 billion, from 2008 to 2009, according to Technomic’s 2010 Top 100 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report, released last week. The category benefited from the recession, as cost-conscious consumers traded down from full-service restaurants to fast-casual ones, said Technomic.

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