A. Elizabeth Sloan

It’s holiday time, and seafood says celebration. But traditional favorites like shrimp cocktail, salmon pate, and oysters Rockefeller are giving way to a new generation of raw and adventuresome foods, including sushi, ceviche, species-specific tartares and carpaccio, raw oysters and clams, and creative, quick-serve fish tacos, wraps, and cones.

There is an unprecedented willingness to experiment and a strong interest in fish-related products, both farm-raised and freecaught, among younger adults. This will make product expansions a very good catch!

And they said America wouldn’t eat sushi! During the past ten years, American sushi bars have quadrupled to 5,000, according to the National Sushi Society, Tokyo. Americans eating sushi have increased from 15% in 1994 to 21% in 1999, a 40% increase, according to the National Restaurant Association. Three quarters of Americans are now at least aware of sushi.

The demand is expected to remain strong. In a January 2000 survey of high school students conducted by DLG Market Research for Restaurant Business, 38% said they are planning to try sushi in the near future, and 31% said they would try Japanese cuisine. In fact, according to a 1999 survey by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch, Cleveland, Ohio, 17.8% of Americans ate Japanese cuisine at a restaurant within the last six months, more than Thai (11.2%), or French (9.8%). Consumers ages 18–34 made the most frequent visits (24.7%), compared to those 35–44 (14.6%), 45–54 (17.9%), 55–64 (3.2%), and 65+ (10.8%).

With traditional supermarkets, including Florida-based Publix and Minneapolis-based Lund’s, providing “grab-and-go” as well as fresh-prepared sushi, widespread exposure will accelerate. Marriott’s hotel restaurants have instituted a frozen sushi program. A new culinary school, The California Sushi Academy of Venice, Calif., is helping to meet the demand for these highly skilled professionals. While safety is certainly an issue, the ability to produce enough sushi chefs may well be the deciding factor in the success of this art form.

What a change from just a few years ago! In late 1999, nearly two-thirds of retailers surveyed by Supermarket Business said the toughest issues facing supermarket seafood departments were labor (90%), product safety (70%), shrink (68%), product availability (63%), and training (55%), not negative consumer attitudes (20%) or labeling (5%). Retailers reported adding more fish varieties, prepared entrees, salmon products, seafood salads, value-added “stuffed” products, and kabobs. The combined “fish category” topped sales (39%), followed by shrimp (31%), prepared uncooked (13%) and cooked (12%) entrees, and lobster, clams, scallops, other shellfish, and soup (5%). Two-thirds of fresh seafood was still purchased through the service counter, and fresh (63%) outpaced frozen (37%).

However, nearly two-thirds of the $50 billion spent last year on fish and seafood was still spent in restaurants. The best-selling forms and species differ by restaurant segment. Salmon is the leading seller in fine dining and hotels, grilled/breaded shrimp in casual/family and college dining, and breaded/fried fish portions in quick-service, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and business cafeterias. Salmon tops the list across all channels and is most often on menus, according to the Restaurants & Institutions 1999 Menu Census. Seafood kabobs, crab cakes, seafood bisque, shrimp Caesar, and shrimp fajitas are the most likely fish items to be added to menus, and whole lobster, sushi, and sashimi have been named “rising stars.” Clams were 9th on the best-seller list, grilled tuna 11th, calamari 12th, and oysters 14th. Trout, Hawaiian species, skate, and just about anything smoked are hot!

Precooked, fresh pre-prepared, “added-value” products, creative frozen items, and a greater use of fish as a substitute for meat have been instrumental in making fish/seafood an everyday alternative. We can expect more fish and seafood to be substituted for meat and poultry. According to the 2000 Chain Account Menu Survey, Wheaton, Ill., seafood menu mentions for entrees were up 10.2% over last year, growing more than any other center-of-the-plate category, including chicken. Beef mentions dropped 5.4%.

Dipping and sharing are phenomena that will allow fish to follow poultry as the basis for lots of variations. Besides the ability to mimic different shapes, coatings, and sizes, fish can offer differentiation by species and can be stuffed with cheese or veggies, puffed or simply rolled and stuffed, or fried. The variety of fish suggests samplers and tasting menus. New products for exotic fish, including special sauces, marinades, and rubs will appear, with good instructions. Fish is an excellent package: roll it, use it for wraps, chip it, or use it like noodles in casseroles.

The potential is awesome. The seemingly insatiable craze for Asian and Latin American flavors ensures popularity of seafood. Younger generations who don’t remember the negatives are hooked. Fish cooks quickly, lends itself to “Eatertainment,” and is healthy to boot. Make more room at the Center of the Plate for fish!

Contributing Editor