To help consumers navigate the rapidly changing sea of information about seafood and, hopefully, order more of it at restaurants, a growing number of chefs and operators are working to increase servers’ fish smarts.
“Things have changed so much … Menus change more often, information about where fish come from is changing,” said Floyd Cardoz, executive at North End Grill in Tribeca, New York. “It’s very important for consumers to understand the quality of the product they are given. The only way to do that is to train your staff.”
Cardoz closely follows seafood news and trends and then relays it all to his kitchen and service staff at pre-meal meetings, and he regularly brings in guest speakers to assist with seafood education.
Recently, veteran chef Toshio Suzuki of Sushi Zen in Manhattan visited North End to give the staff a demonstration on how to properly prepare and serve raw fish. Cardoz has also brought in fisherman, farmers, wine makers and scotch blenders. “When giving a message, it helps to show it,” said Cardoz. “If the staff feels a connection to what you’re doing, they feel more invested in making sure guests get the right information.”
The demand for this type of seafood training at restaurants is increasing, said Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. “The demand is there … the information is constantly changing,” she said. “Now that people want the information we have to find a way to get it to them.”
Just a few years ago Bowman was paying regular visits to Seafood Watch’s local partner restaurants to talk with their employees about unusual fish species and sustainability. Seafood Watch restaurant partners commit to removing all seafood on the Watch’s “avoid” list from their menus and training their staff about ocean-friendly seafood. These days, the number of partners has increased to 100, and interest in training is so strong that Bowman can’t get around to all the restaurants that request it.
As a way to meet that growing demand, Bowman sends restaurants Power Point presentations, conducts webinars and does group trainings. While these services are complimentary for partners, Bowman says the organization plans to open its training up, possibly at a cost, to non-partners — suppliers, restaurants or other organizations that want to be educated on seafood sustainability, but are unable to meet all of Seafood Watch’s partner requirements.
For other operators, technology is the seafood-training vehicle of choice.
“Our E-Learning Library is a vital tool for our restaurant training, and essential in helping our staff understand and communicate D’s commitment to seafood expertise and excellent execution of our freshly prepared fish and seafood meals,” said Michael Lippert, executive vice president of operations for Captain D’s, a 527-unit quick-service seafood chain. “We are currently revamping our program to better assist our Guest Specialists in communicating with our guests the intricate specifics of our products and menu items in a friendly, factual manner."
The company hired a head of e-learning development to revamp the online learning program, and since unveiling the new version at its franchise convention last November, franchisees’ use of D’s Learning Library has increased 300 percent.
Chef Ed Brown, senior vice president of food and beverage for Restaurant Associates and owner of Ed’s Chowder House, is tackling the challenge of training with video. “[Pre-meal staff meetings] used to be about customers coming, V.I.P.s, push the Dover Sole,” said Brown. “Now we have long, topical discussions. We take feedback.”
To keep his nationwide staff current, Brown and his team recently began producing a three-to-four minute video about various food products, including seafood, as well as cost savings suggestions and safety. The videos, which have replaced a written memo, are sent to 400 chefs and directors across the country and get about 300 views per week. “Video is more interesting than a memo,” said Brown. “It’s fun.”
The video program has been so successful that Restaurant Associates' parent company, Compass, has adopted the program as a best practice and other sectors are taking it on, said Brown.
Bowman credits the growing interest in seafood training, in part, to chefs and operators who recognize that it’s important to their business. “[The staff’s] education and enthusiasm is really going to be the difference between menu items that move and menu items that don’t,” said Bowman. “You want your staff to know their stuff and sell it.”