Get creative, but stay honest to woo consumers to seafood, panel urges

Published on
March 20, 2017

Increasing consumer confidence in seafood is devilishly difficult, but ultimately worth it, according to a panel of celebrity chefs speaking during Seafood Expo North America’s keynote panel on 19 March in Boston, Massachusetts.

As a result of more consistent and positive efforts to promote seafood, consumers can be wooed over and the industry will be assured of a brighter – and more sustainable future, the panelists said.

“We have to collectively agree to be honest. Consumer confidence is the elephant in the room that we all have to eliminate,” said Rick Moonen, cookbook author, sustainable seafood advocate and operator of RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room in Las Vegas, Nevada. “We don’t celebrate our victories loudly enough as an industry. People put what we do in their mouths. There is a conference and a trust. We have to deliver what we believe to be true.”

While a lot of restaurants and some distributors “cheat,” according to Jeff Black, executive chef of Black Salt Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C, the restaurant group ensures consumer confidence by visiting its sustainable seafood suppliers and offering a traceability system that allows consumers to scan a code and know the boat and body of water their seafood comes from, along with other facts.

“It gives people a lot of confidence,” Black said.

The future success of sustainable seafood hinges on telling consumers the story behind the sustainable fish, according to Moonen.

“We have to tell stories. People listen to stories; they don’t listen to statistics,” Moonen said. “We have to have the media write more good stories. That is the next layer of what needs to happen.”

Part of the sustainable seafood story is relaying the fact that sustainable is not necessarily more expensive than regular seafood, said Richard Garcia, vice president of culinary for Crescent Hotels & Resorts, North America.

“When consumers think of a mild, white fish, they often think of just cod. But, in New England, you don’t see Atlantic pollock, for example, for more than USD 4.99 (EUR 4.64) per pound in the supermarket. As a seafood industry, we haven't done a good job of telling people that story.”

Telling the story of where sustainable and underutilized species come from also boosts restaurant operators’ bottom line. For example, Ned Bell, Ocean Wise executive chef at Vancouver Aquarium was looking for a unique, sustainable seafood to feature during “Dine Out Vancouver” in January.

“I approached one of my fishermen and asked, ‘What fish do you have that we can promote?’ He sent me some First Nations salmon. I didn’t even know it was available,” Bell said.

The Vancouver Aquarium chefs made some innovative dishes with the chum salmon – “not sexy like King salmon,” Bell said – and promoted it throughout January. In 17 days, the restaurant sold 1,000 portions.

“Ask your fishermen, ‘What do you need me to sell right now?’” Bells said. “Your business can thrive because of it.”

As a bonus, the aquarium kept its food costs well under budget, since they sourced an underutilized species, Bell added.

Black Salt Restaurant Group also moves a lot of sustainable seafood with special events and promotions.

“One of the ways we move the needle is to do a lot of events, such as oyster roasts, crawfish boils, and Oyster Mania Monday,” Black said.

The group’s 80-seat Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Washington, D.C., for example, can move 1,200 oysters per day on Oyster Mania Monday weekly.

“That’s not by accident,” Black said.

Photo Credit: Shad Bookout, Chief Social Officer for Opinion Vary

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