Stemming the tide

Stemming the tide

Restaurants battle high prices to bring customers back to shrimp

Shrimp has had a tough year. With farmed varieties hit by bad weather and disease, and wild domestic shrimp recovering from last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, prices of the crustacean have been rising all year. Meanwhile, consumers have been tightening their purse strings, foregoing even small luxuries such as seafood.

Shrimp orders in restaurants have fallen by 3 percent in the year ended in June, continuing a trend of the past several years, according to consumer research firm The NPD Group.

But prices might ease with the September shrimp harvest, and restaurateurs are finding ways to entice customers to indulge a bit in their favorite crustacean.

For example, at Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, a four-unit subsidiary of Last In Concepts, based in Baton Rouge, La., a dish called Angels on Horseback was languishing on the menu as an entrée.

Made with U 16-20 shrimp stuffed with another local delicacy, oysters, it was then wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, breaded, fried and served with rémoulade sauce. Last In chief operating officer Scott Taylor said it was a great dish.

“But it was big and expensive, and no one bought it,” he said.

Then they recast it, committing to buying only local shrimp, mentioning that fact prominently on the menu and offering the dish as a $9.99 appetizer, “and it went from being nothing to a huge hit,” Taylor said.

Jeffrey Tenner, executive chef of Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant, said shrimp continues to enjoy popularity at his company’s 94 restaurants.

He’s not alone. Shrimp is on 70 percent of the menus monitored by research firm Datassential. The next most popular seafood, crab, is at just over 39 percent of restaurants.

A perennial favorite at Bertucci’s is Shrimp Rossini. To prepare the dish, the seafood is sautéed and tossed in a tomato-cream sauce with capers and crushed red peppers. That’s all tossed in spaghetti. It’s $15.49.

Also popular is the Shrimp Bella Venezia pizza, a white pizza with lemon-pepper cream sauce, mozzarella, diced tomato and garlic. An individual pizza is $11.99, and a large is $19.99.

Some Asian restaurants also say shrimp sales are good, although Randy Murphy, president and chief executives of Mama Fu’s Asian House, based in Austin, Texas, said that the seafood, once the 13-unit chain’s solid second-best-selling protein, after chicken, now is moving closer to beef.

The chain’s Thai “Dynamite” Shrimp — lightly battered, flash-fried shrimp served on a bed of Asian slaw and drizzled with spicy aïoli for $5.49 for a regular portion and $8.99 for a large — remains the second-most-popular appetizer, however, after lettuce wraps.

Murphy said the fact that they charged $1 extra for shrimp is affecting some sales, and with shrimp prices continuing to rise, they’re about to charge $1.10 for it.

“Shrimp’s been high for a year now, and there’s really no indication it’s going to come down,” he said.

Seafood market expert John Sackton, publisher of News, said shrimp prices spiked after the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and have stayed high ever since. He said a weak dollar has been a factor since the bulk of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported, as have floods in Thailand, heat in Vietnam and China, and disease at Mexican farms.

Sackton said that while prices might come down in September as the latest harvests come in, that also is the month when retail buyers place their holiday orders, which could buoy prices.

Despite high prices, Tony Joseph, director of United States operations for Teriyaki Experience, a 100-unit chain based in Oakville, Ontario, said he wouldn’t raise prices on dishes such as his $6.79 shrimp teriyaki with rice and vegetables or the $7.29 yakisoba noodle teriyaki with shrimp.

“Sometimes, you have to lower your margin,” he said. “But the last thing we want to do is raise prices during these economic tough times.” 

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] [3].