Lent is fast approaching, and for many Americans, that means eating more seafood. That’s true even during these challenging times and as new meatless options emerge, so restaurants continue to roll out fish and shellfish dishes at this time of year.
During the 40-day period before Easter that many Christians observe as a time for self-sacrifice, Catholics are required to refrain from eating meat on Fridays (and on Ash Wednesday). About 23% of the United States population is Catholic, and about 62% of them don’t eat meat on the seven Fridays during Lent (according to Pew Research and Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, respectively).
That means about 14% of the population is looking for meatless items on those Fridays, and custom points them to seafood dishes. For restaurants, the result of that is a 20% increase in seafood sales during Lent, according to menu research firm Datassential.
That’s why The Habit Burger Grill, a subsidiary of Yum Brands International, plans to start promoting its ahi tuna sandwich on Feb. 17, which is Ash Wednesday this year — the first day of Lent — at its 279 domestic locations.
Though always on the menu, priced between $8.15 and $8.85 depending on the location, this sandwich of grilled line-caught sushi-grade tuna, served on a seeded bun with teriyaki glaze, lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce, has special appeal at this time of year.
So do Velvet Taco’s seafood items, which include a shrimp and grits taco, made with blackened shrimp in Creole rémoulade, crispy pepper Jack cheese grits, charred tomato salsa and micro cilantro in a corn tortilla for $5.75.
The 19-unit-chain fast-casual taco chain based in Dallas also has a grilled salmon taco with Napa slaw, citrus lime crema, pickled Fresno chiles, roasted corn pico de gallo, avocado crema and micro cilantro in a corn tortilla for $5.50.
Other non-meat options
Although seafood is traditionally the protein of choice on Lenten Fridays, recently there have been conversations about breaking that custom.
An article in The Washington Post last year in the runup to Lent postulated that plant-based meat substitutes might be acceptable on Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
And as the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation last year during Lent, which started on February 26, bishops in some diocese granted dispensations allowing their practitioners to eat meat on Fridays, reasoning that they had sacrificed enough during lockdown, and that making special trips to find seafood might be dangerous.
Velvet Taco is expanding what’s classified as seafood with the “weekly taco feature” that it’s rolling out at the start of Lent: The $5.50 Gator Gras taco, available February 17-23 will feature fried alligator, Napa slaw, chipotle crema, roasted corn pico de gallo and micro cilantro in a corn tortilla.
Alligator might not be what most people consider when they think of seafood, but it is an aquatic reptile, and farm-raised alligator producers were exhibitors at the 2019 Seafood Expo in Boston.
Although there are new Lenten options, and a more lenient Catholic clergy, more than half of the new seafood dishes in restaurants in 2020 were rolled out in the first quarter of the year, according to Datassential.
That’s somewhat higher than in previous years, when seafood offerings also spiked during the summer. But last summer many restaurants were focused on offering portable comfort food, which seafood generally is not. In fact, anecdotally, restaurant operators often cited fried calamari specifically as a menu item that did not travel well.
“I would love to make seafood dishes again for people,” said Eric Rivera, chef and owner of Addo in Seattle.
Before the pandemic, Addo was a tasting-menu-only restaurant, but Rivera closed his dining room in March and has focused instead on giving his customers what they need at home. That has ranged from groceries to microwavable family meals to kits with instructions that allow his customers to prepare their own tasting menus at home. Rivera considers himself a seafood expert, but he says teaching his customers to cook seafood properly at home is more of a challenge than he or his customers want.
“I’m working with people to see what they need and what they want,” he said. “Anything having to do with seafood and teaching people to cook that at home is kind of a nightmare.”
For restaurants that still have open dining rooms, seafood continues to have a draw at this time of year, especially since it’s not something many of them eat year-round.
Gregg Nettleton, president and chief operating officer of FAT Brands’ casual dining division, which includes Ponderosa & Bonanza Steakhouses, said the chains’ Midwestern customers look forward to the all-you-can-eat shrimp platter that will be available this year from Feb. 17 through April 3.