While Americans are ordering more nonfried seafood selections when dining out, the higher price tag for fish and shellfish is contributing to an overall decline in consumption in restaurants, according to a new study.
The reduction in seafood purchases at foodservice establishments across the United States has more to do with the economy and price than disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, said The NPD Group, a market research company based in Chicago.
“The recession was when a notable reduction occurred in seafood consumption with consumers trading down and out of the market,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. “Then and now, the matter of the price of a seafood meal may have influenced cautious, controlled spenders to switch to other entrées or lower price-point outlets.”
Seafood consumption in restaurants fell by 2 percent compared with flat restaurant industry traffic for the year ended March 2011, NPD said.
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However, that decline is a continuation of a longer-term slide that began in 2007 when total seafood servings decreased by 1 percent. They continued to fall by 1 percent in 2008, 6 percent in 2009, and 1 percent in 2010.
But while seafood consumption overall has been steadily eroding, the purchase of nonfried seafood such as salmon and sushi is up by 1 percent, with salmon servings growing 1 percent and sushi growing 4 percent for the year ended March 2011, the NPD report said.
Nonfried seafood preparations may be baked, broiled, grilled or eaten raw.
NPD said nonfried seafood orders are up because those individuals 50 and older — the fastest-growing segment of the population — are bigger seafood fans than the younger demographic. Older customers also are most inclined to mention cooking method as an important facet of a healthy meal.
“The growth in nonfried seafood servings suggests consumers are making health-conscious decisions in their seafood selections,” Riggs said. “With the attention healthful eating is being given by public and private sector initiatives, restaurant operators may see this as a good opportunity to assess their seafood menu offerings in order to meet their consumers’ interests and needs.”
In other words, the baby boomers are seeking nonfried options in the seafood category, Riggs said.
And because most consumers don’t know how to buy or cook fish, she said: “It’s an opportunity for restaurant operators. The challenge is the pricing. [Restaurateurs] have to be careful how they price those items. Fish and seafood have always been a higher ticket.”
Commodity costs also could be a factor in weakening seafood sales as restaurateurs are being forced to raise their menu prices to help offset food inflation.
“Costs have been a real pain in the butt for us,” said Peter Gibbons, vice president of product development for Captain D’s, a 530-unit seafood chain based in Nashville, Tenn.
However, other factors also help to shape sales trends, operators say. Stevie Woodman, co-owner of popular seafood restaurant Woodman’s of Essex in Massachusetts, cites weather as being a contributing factor to fried seafood sales.
“If we have good weather, we do great,” said Woodman, whose restaurant is known for its fried clams.
Captain D’s Gibbons also pointed out that it’s important for the seafood restaurant sector to portray seafood as a viable protein to diners
“It’s up to us to make it easier for people to eat more seafood,” Gibbons said.