Lent: Boom or bust?
Millions of Christians around the world will begin observing the season of Lent on Wednesday, which means many will also abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays until Easter Sunday, March 26. So what's a restaurant owner to do when a significant portion of of customers can't order red meat? Prepare.
Casting the nets
Long John Silver's is one chain that take the holiday season seriously as it expects sales to increase by 75 percent on that day alone, said Marilyn Nicholson, vice president of Media & Promotions for Long John Silver's.
"Historically during Lent, we will serve nearly 22 million pieces of fish. On Ash Wednesday alone we will serve half a million hushpuppies, which is about twice the amount of a typical non-Lent Wednesday," she said. Shrimp is also very popular with about 450,000 pieces sold on the first day of Lent."
Long John Silver's began preparing for Lent 2016 almost a year ago.
"This is an incredibly important selling season for us, so we wanted to make sure that during 2016 we are able to showcase the quality of our product, our friendly service and cleanliness of our restaurants," Nicholson said. "Long John Silver's has been serving consumers during Lent for almost 50 years. This history helps the operations team forecast sales and order accordingly."
On the operations side, the company launched a system-wide training program, including videos and a Lent "playbook" that includes resources for restaurant operators to put their best foot forward for the surge of customers. It also held a series of regional planning and preparation meetings for restaurant operators.
"With more than 66 million Catholics in the United States, we decided to target Lent observing consumers this year," Nicholson said. "We marketed to local churches near our restaurants by placing ads in their bulletins and delivered special Lent coupon books and flyers advertising family-style meals. We are also giving out 'Fry Day' frequency cards to reward loyal customers."
The company also launched one of its largest marketing campaigns in recent history to reach consumers during the Lenten season.
"A sweepstakes promotion called 'Fish You Were Here' will give consumers an opportunity to win one of three grand prizes — a whale watching cruise, an Alaskan cruise and a Finding Nemo Caribbean cruise," Nicholson said. "To enter the sweepstakes, customers just have to take a selfie in our restaurants or with our products and upload it at LJSelfie.com."
Also, among other seafood favorites, Long John Silver's will offer specials, including premium 100-percent wild-caught, hand-battered, Alaskan Cod that includes fries and two hushpuppies for $5.99, Nicholson added.
"Our fish is fresh-caught, nutritious and flash-frozen aboard the fishing fleet to lock in the flavor," she said. "For consumers interested in clean eating, Long John Silver's fish is antibiotic free, hormone free, GMO free, additive free and contains no artificial color or flavors."
For Captain D's, each Friday of Lent is a top sales day when it draws a lot of incremental traffic, according to Dawn Foster, VP of Brand Marketing for the seafood restaurant chain. Like its competitors, Captain D's also began preparing for Lent well in advance.
"We have a very rigorous product innovation process at D's. The limited-time offers for the Lent promotional period were in market test six to 12 months ago," Foster said. "We know this is a high-volume time for our restaurants, so we use the test data and work with our best-in-class Purchasing department well in advance to be sure we will have the proper inventory at the most efficient costs."
Captain D's also relies on experience in preparing its inventory and training its staff. It's been serving seafood for 46 years.
"We focus on offering great new 'Full Meal Deals,' with compelling limited-time offers showcasing our best television creative," Foster said. "At Captain D's, we strive for an excellent guest experience every day. Our operations team works tirelessly to make sure that restaurants are adequately staffed for increased volume. Each member shows up ready to freshly prepare each order perfectly and ensure that it is served hot and with warm hospitality."
The chain's $4.99 Full Meal Deals are always a big hit during this time of increased traffic. Guest receive whole-muscle fish and seafood with two sides and hushpuppies for less than $5.
Captain D's also has a lot of new customers come into its restaurants during Lent.
"They are delighted to see that we have a fantastic grilled menu available," Foster said. "With options like blackened tilapia, lemon pepper white fish, surf-and-turf, and grilled Wild Alaskan Salmon, customers find they can come back a couple times in a week and still try something new that they'll love."
During Lent, Captain D's will also be holding its "Catch of the Year" Sweepstakes, where guests can enter online for the chance to win "Free D's for a Year" as well as a dinner party prepared by its chef, Jason Henderson.
Many fish in the sea
Although fried seafood is always popular during Lent, it is also an opportunity for restaurants to experiment with their seafood offerings.
"Last year, we noted Branded Beer-Battered Fish as a major Lenten menu trend," said Laura McGuire, director of Editorial for Technomic. "This included fish battered in a specific brand of ale or lager. This trend was interesting because it promoted a balance between saintly (healthy fish dish) and sinful (beer batter), and it was a new twist on a traditional Lent item of fish and chips. On menus last year, we saw it with Carl's Jr./Hardee's Redhook Beer-Battered Cod Fish Sandwich, Shari's Restaurants' Alaskan Amber Beer Battered Fish & Chips and Claddagh Irish Pub's Guinness Battered Shrimp & Fries."
In addition to fried offerings, some restaurants are choosing a healthier route with non-fried options. Newk's Eatery, for example, launched an Ahi Tuna Sandwich, Ahi Tuna Salad and Shrimp and Avocado Salad for Lent last year, according to McGuire. Also, Famous Dave's rolled out Cedar Plank-Smoked Salmon, a Cedar Plank-Smoked Salmon Flatbread and Smoked Salmon and Barbecue Shrimp Tacos.
McGuire added that while fried seafood is the bigger player in QSRs, diners should expect other, more healthful preparations. To grow sales during Lent, McGuire recommends restaurant operators should not only offer seafood items but promote them accordingly.
"Oftentimes, fish may not be the most appealing option for those looking to have a craveable meal," she said. "Thus, offering fish with bolder sauces or toppings might be attractive not only to those following the religious practices but other customers as well, such as those looking to have a lighter, more calorie-conscious meal."
McGuire also believes a major opportunity for chains this year is to add more ethnic variations of traditional fried fish offerings like fried fish and seafood sandwiches and plate meals.
"Many chains just put traditional features on these sandwiches like lettuce, tomato and maybe a classic tartar sauce," she said. "However, we could see more in the way of Asian or Latin influence on these menu items. There is a major opportunity for restaurants in the coming year to garner more support from these demographics as well as people who want bolder flavors associated with their fish and seafood offerings during Lent."
Emily Dryden, insights account manager at Food IQ, agrees.
"All QSRs have always felt the pressure to provide a seafood-based, limited-time offer during Lent," she said. "But it's 2016! We're hoping these QSRs will really begin to step it up in terms of creativity, variety and flavor. Not that there's anything wrong with a great fish sandwich, but the expectations of consumers are rising when it comes to taste and quality. Inventive seafood LTOs will grab the attention of consumers and drive traffic."
Burger joints go fishing
Although Lent might be an uncertain and potentially unprofitable time of year for restaurants that don't specialize in seafood, it doesn't have to be.
"With our great menu variety along with added limited-time offers, we are able to provide our guests with delicious alternatives to beef during Lent and throughout the year," said Andrea Jacobs, director of marketing for Back Yard Burgers. "Back Yard Burgers takes pride in offering guests a variety of options during every season. By putting unique spins on fish classics, like our Grilled Salmon Burger, we are able to keep up with fans' lifestyles, even during Lent."
Back Yard Burgers recently introduced three new limited-time offers, including its Grilled Salmon Burger. The other new LTO menu items are Salt and Vinegar Waffle Fries and a Key Lime Shake. The new offers are designed to give Back Yard Burgers' customers new flavor profiles and added flexibility.
"These exciting limited-time offers are perfect for those who need to avoid meat during the season of Lent, but they also provide great new flavors and tastes that will satisfy any appetite," said David McDougall, CEO of Back Yard Burgers.
Fellow burger purveyor Whataburger also doesn't intend to lose customers during Lent. It begins planning its Lenten promotions one year in advance so its customers know about its meatless offerings, according to Rich Scheffler, Whataburger vice president of Marketing and Innovation.
"Whataburger is all about offering customers the ability to customize their order and to choose from a variety of great menu options," Scheffler said. "During Lent, and year-round, we offer the Whatacatch Sandwich and Whatacatch Dinner as well as our salads, which can be ordered without beef or chicken."
The Whatacatch Sandwich includes a wild-caught Alaskan pollock fish fillet with Southern-style cornmeal breading, served on a toasted bun with lettuce and topped with Whataburger's tartar sauce. The Whatacatch Dinner includes two all-white fish fillets, fries and Whataburger's tartar sauce.
For Whataburger, a key to making sales is menu variety.
"We understand many of our customers like variety when they eat out, and we strive to provide a lot of options to make their selection easy," Scheffler said. "We're proud to offer many delicious choices on our menu to suit many tastes, including during Lent, such as the Garden Salad and the Apple Cranberry Salad."
Travis Wagoner spent nearly 18 years in education as an alumni relations and communications director, coordinating numerous annual events and writing, editing and producing a quarterly, 72-plus-page magazine. Travis also was a ghostwriter for an insurance firm, writing about the Affordable Care Act. He holds a BA degree in communications/public relations from Xavier University.