Every year restaurant chains focus their menu development and marketing to make sure they are not giving up traffic and sales between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, a 40-day period when Christians observing Lent abstain from certain vices or habits.
For most foodservice brands that means stepping up seafood and fish offerings for the season when Christians typically stop eating meat on Fridays.
This year several chains, including McDonald's, Carl’s Jr. and Wendy's, are finding new ways to market fish items typically promoted during Lent, which began on Feb. 13. Some chains are even thinking beyond the typical fried fish sandwich.
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic Inc., said most restaurant chains should consider at a bare minimum having some kind of fish or non-meat option for people observing Lent, at least to prevent the loss of traffic.
“There is the potential for losing business if you don’t accommodate Lent,” he said, “and if you do, you can even steal some business, and that’s the marketplace we’re in. You’re still going to get growth from stealing share.”
Take a look at what several chains are doing to try and hook customers with their Lenten promotions.
McDonald’s hatches the seafood snack
McDonald’s introduced Fish McBites this year, an aquatic variant on last year’s popular the Dollar Menu as well: A $1 snack-size portion of Fish McBites was approved late last year as a way to bolster the value menu in the chain’s 14,000-plus-unit domestic system.McBites limited-time offer, as part of a campaign around its fish offerings in time for Lent. The item not only made news for the regular menu, but for
McDonald’s has also upgraded its Filet-O-Fish sandwich this year, announcing last month that the fish in that sandwich and in McBites was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as 100-percent sustainable. Packaging for both items carries the blue “eco-label” the council bestows upon restaurants that source their product from fisheries that meet stringent sustainability standards.
For chains that are going a more traditional route with fried-fish sandwiches and entrees for Lent, the important differentiators appear to be menu descriptions that highlight where the brands’ fish comes from.
To wit, Wendy’s is promoting the Premium Fish Fillet at its 6,000-plus restaurants by calling out its “100-percent North Pacific Cod.” Culver’s, the chain of 500 quick-service locations, is selling a seasonal Northwoods Walleye Sandwich to complement its permanent items of North Atlantic Cod Sandwich and a North Atlantic Cod Dinner.
“That’s part of the overall trend to improve the perceptions of food and ingredients through marketing,” Tristano said. “So certain regions get called out. Marketers have enhanced perceptions with the way they’ve described menu items for years. Is it more appealing during Lent? Probably.”
New products rolling out during Lent do not necessarily need their region of origin in the menu description, but several chains still choose their words carefully to introduce seafood dishes. Back Yard Burgers, for example, added the Bold and Crunchy Fish Sandwich at all 83 of its locations through March 31.
Famous Dave’s is reintroducing Sweetwater Catfish to its menu after a nearly three-year hiatus. The item once again is a permanent fixture on the chain’s menu, and it was removed because Famous Dave’s could not ensure a sustainable supply to meet demand for the popular item. Since its reintroduction, positive social-media mentions of the dish have grown rapidly, chief executive John Gilbert said Thursday during the nearly 200-unit chain’s fourth-quarter earnings call.
Still more brands have decided not to stop at one sandwich or fish entrée for Lenten season but rather to offer small Lenten menus through March.
Marie Callender’s, the casual-dining chain of approximately 80 units, is promoting Cajun Salmon & Jumbo Shrimp for $16.99, Grilled Mahi Mahi Cabo Tacos for $10.99 and a Crispy Jumbo Shrimp Dinner for $11.99.
Fast-casual chain McAlister’s Deli also has a new seafood option available at its more than 310 locations in 23 states, a Cajun Shrimp lineup that includes the Cajun Shrimp Caesar Salad, Po Boy and Caesar Wrap.
In-store messaging also will highlight all the Lent-friendly items on McAlister’s menu, including garden salads, vegetarian chili, nachos and a tuna salad sandwich.
“We want our guests to know that they can still enjoy many of their McAlister’s favorites during Lent,” chief executive Frank Paci said in a statement. “We’ve made it easy to enjoy delicious options, and our new Cajun Shrimp items are the perfect addition for this season.”
Technomic’s Tristano said customers likely give restaurants credit for accommodating Lent, regardless if the menus’ items are seasonal limited-time offers or existing products that meet their needs during Lent.
“What’s important to the consumer who observes Lent is that the restaurant promotes it,” Tristano said. “It shows that the restaurant recognizes the holiday and ties it to the customer and provides an alternative that’s good, whether it’s a permanent menu item or limited-time offer.”
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s also are trying something new with the typical fish sandwich, rolling out a Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich, which officials hope could become a permanent menu item.
Though many regional burger chains, like Habit Burger Grill, have offered grilled-fish sandwiches for years, the CKE Restaurants Inc.-owned brands would offer such an item on the largest scale seen yet in the United States, as they collectively operate or franchise nearly 3,300 restaurants in 42 states and 27 countries.
Lest fans of Carl’s Jr. or Hardee’s fear the chains are changing things too much, the brands will promote the sandwich with a racy commercial starring swimsuit model Nina Agdal, which premiered during the Super Bowl.
Dreaming of something different
For Chicago-based I Dream of Falafel, a four-unit chain of Mediterranean-theme restaurants, recognizing Lent required the brand to simply add an apostrophe to a signature offering. The chain will promote its “Lent’il Soup” heavily through Good Friday.
The chain also will call out many of the vegetarian items on its menu for observant Christians looking to avoid meat, such as hummus, falafel wraps, baba ganoujeh and tabbouleh salads.
Also, while 350-plus-unit Wienerschnitzel is known for its hot dogs, Lenten season provides the brand a chance to market new seafood items, packaged together in its “UnDER the Sea Trio.” The Sea Dog is an Alaskan Pollock fish fillet wrapped in a hot dog bun with tartar sauce and lettuce, and Wienerschnitzel also will offer a Fish Wrap, with salsa and lettuce in a flour tortilla, as well as a Fish ‘n Chips platter.