SENA Reconnect panel: Innovative flavors will boost restaurants’ sales in a post-COVID world

Published on
March 16, 2021

Not only are Americans eager to get back out to eat, they’re also hankering to try something different when they do, according to Datassential Director of Customer Success Mark DiDimenico.

Adding unique and portable seafood dishes to menus will help restaurants and other foodservice outlets increase spending averages and make up for some of the declines experienced in the industry over the past year, DiDimenico and other chefs and experts said during a Seafood Expo North America Reconnect panel on Monday, 15 March.

Overall sales dropped 29.8 percent in 2020 and 12 percent of seafood restaurants closed their doors temporarily or permanently over the past year, DiDimenico said. This year, DiDimenico said, the horizon appears a little brighter – Datassential expects overall foodservice sales to rise 7.5 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.

“That doesn’t get us back to where we were in 2019, but we are on the road [to recovery],” DiDimenico said. “We are very optimistic about the industry – especially later this year with widespread vaccination. We might see too much demand for some locations.”

By 2022, foodservice sales volumes are expected to return to where they were prior to the pandemic, Datassential forecasted.

Seafood vendors can help operators diversify their offerings, helping to boost average check sizes, DiDimenico said.

In a recent survey of foodservice operators, Datassential found  58 percent wanted to demonstrate menu variety in order to better compete in the current environment, while 50 percent wanted to lift check averages, and 49 percent were seeking more non-meat options. Additionally, 26 percent said they needed help with quick-prep items and minimizing labor use, while 45 percent said they wanted to differentiate their menu from competitors.

However, seafood poses a few challenges for restaurant operators: In Datassential’s survey, 46 percent of operators said they are concerned about the high cost of seafood; 26 percent are worried about the short shelf life of refrigerated seafood; 30 percent are concerned about the fluctuating cost of ingredients; and 24 percent have difficulty getting consumers excited about seafood.

Still, there are enormous opportunities for seafood at restaurants, since nearly 80 percent of consumers are craving something new when they go out to eat, and 65 percent said they’re bored with the food they are cooking at home, according to Datassential.

As consumers return to restaurants, they said they are most excited about eating foods that they have trouble preparing at home, including Chinese food, sushi, sashimi, lobster, and shrimp tempura.

Seafood makes a case for itself and is affordable compared to other proteins, Chef and Datassential Director of Client Solutions Jennifer Arenas said.

“Oftentimes, it is not more expensive than beef and pork. Tuna, salmon, and shrimp are the most popular and they are not that far from [beef and pork prices],” Arenas said.

Educating operators that seafood is craveable, healthy, and profitable is an effective approach in increasing the protein’s presence, King & Prince Seafood Corporate Executive Chef Brett Smith said.

“Show operators how we can we add on seafood to make surf-and-turf dishes, appetizers, and add on shrimp to an entree to increase check averages,” Smith said.

Innovative seafood dishes are making their way into fast-food restaurants, as well as casual dining and upscale eateries, the panelists noted.

For example, Popeyes limited-time Cajun Flounder Sandwich, which utilizes wild Pacific flounder seasoned in a blend of Popeyes’ Cajun seasoning, is “kind of a game-changer,” Smith said.

“For a [quick-service restaurant] fish sandwich, you typically think of cod. For them to call out flounder is a pretty big deal – and it’s good,” Smith said.

Melts and other sandwiches can also work well for seafood applications, such as a lobster macaroni and cheese melt on thick sourdough bread, Smith said. He added that lobster salad is a nice change from the typical tuna salad.

Operators can infuse many different flavors, spices, and herbs into marinades and batters for shrimp to make their dishes stand apart from competitors, according to Smith.

Arenas advised stakeholders, operators, and suppliers to think about new portable items that incorporate seafood beyond sandwiches, such as empanadas and bao buns, “which are really easy.”

Fish and chips, poke, sushi, seafood stew, and shrimp and grits are the top seafood items showing up on more menus, according to Datassential.

“Poke is another trending item we are seeing on appetizer menus,” DiDimenico said.

Consumers also want to try some new seafood species, such as Cheesecake Factory’s Grilled Branzino with Mediterranean Salsa, according to DiDimenico. While only 21 percent of consumers said they knew what branzino was, the majority were familiar with Mediterranean flavors and salsa, “so this is a dish that has a high purchase intent,” DiDimenico said.

Another “high purchase intent” dish is Popeyes Wicked Shrimp, which is spicy battered shrimp, he said.

Photo courtesy of Jade ThaiCatwalk/Shutterstock

Contributing Editor

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