Health benefits may encourage greater use of fish

Seafood continues to remain limited on the menus of many fast food restaurants, which are frequently focused on meat products, in Europe as well as globally. Yet increasing demands for convenient food options, coupled with growing desires for healthy and “real” food, show the potential for an increase in seafood available at quick service restaurants.

 Fast food or quick service restaurants (QSR) offer consumers with food that is prepared and served rapidly. The food can be taken away or eaten in-store, though retailers usually lack full table service. The fast food industries in Europe benefit from busy consumer lifestyles, which attract people to more quickly and easily available dining options; fast food is also more affordable than eating at fine-dining restaurants. While the fast food industry is dominated largely by hamburgers, chicken, and other meat products, seafood products have found some place in the industry.


Little variety exists in major chains’ fish offerings

Seafood items generally available at fast food outlets consist of whitefish, primarily cod, pollock and haddock, which are popular in fried forms. These species are low in fat and have mild flavours, and are easily prepared in fillets or fish fingers. Many of the fish dishes available at burger chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s are deep-fried fillets of such fish, served on sandwiches. Subway, the world’s largest restaurant chain in terms of number of locations, also offers skipjack tuna in its assortment of sandwich fillings.

Reports show that European nations including France, the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, are among the top consumers of fast food worldwide. The primary reasons for consumption of fast food in these nations are convenience and low price; consumers want to dedicate less time to food preparation. Taste is a consideration as well. In many of these countries, fish have limited presence on fast food menus, and most fast food is purchased from international chains focused on meat-based fare. Fish products are seen less frequently at fast food restaurants than meat and chicken, often due to limited demand compared to hamburgers or chicken products. Yet in the United Kingdom, for example, fish and chips have enjoyed continued popularity as a staple of takeaway food.

Fish and chips shops, or “chippies,” are an important facet of British food and identity.


UK’s chippies record growth servings

International brands like McDonald’s remain the fast food industry leader in many European countries in terms of overall sales. McDonald’s accounted for nearly a third of fast food sales value in countries like Germany, Poland, and Romania, according to market research from Euromonitor. In the United Kingdom cod, the largest species of fish eaten outside of the home, was served approximately 145 million times in 2015, over three times the level of the nearest competitors of haddock, prawns and salmon. In 2015, quick service restaurants (excluding fish and chips shops) were responsible for 13,471 million servings of cod, a decline of 12.8 percent over 2014. Fish and chips shops accounted for 58,430 million servings, increasing by 32.8 percent from 2014. Together, QSR and fish and chips shops account for nearly half of cod consumption outside the home. In general total seafood servings were down by 0.6% in 2015 compared with a year earlier, with declines in all types of sales outlets with the exception of fish and chip shops and pubs.

While many US-based chains have limited fish options on their typical menus, they often extend the fish offerings during Lent, the 40-day period before Easter during which many observers abstain from meat.  The famous “fillet-o-fish” from McDonald’s was invented by a franchise owner to boost sales during Lent, and the sandwich continues to see nearly a quarter of its sales during that period. The filling is made of wild-caught Alaska pollock, which is typically filleted and frozen within 72 hours of being caught, and is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Alaska pollock is among the most popular whitefish species in use by these chains, though some, like Wendy’s, serve cod as well. Some US-based chains have larger seafood offerings, such as Long John Silver’s, a fish and chicken chain that serves fish products including fried cod, clams, and shrimp; baked cod and shrimp; and crab cakes.


Regionally, tradition drives fish fast food consumption

The forms in which consumers prefer to enjoy their fast food varies between nations. In the United Kingdom, quick-service, take-away fish is most prominent in the form of fish and chips, a very popular part of British dining culture. According to the National Federation of Fish Friers, the industry group for fish and chip retailers, there are 10,500 fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom. Approximately 382 million portions of fish and chips are consumed annually by British customers, equalling 6 annual portions per capita and totalling £1.2 billion in spending. A total of £3.2 billion was spent by consumers on fish outside the home. Fish and chips shops mostly use cod in England, but also serve other species of whitefish including pollock, haddock, huss, plaice, hake, coley, whiting, or lemon sole. Most of this fish is frozen at sea, though this depends on the retailer, and some shops use fresh fish when available. Fish and chips are sold frequently by smaller, independent take-away vendors, as well as chain restaurants like Harry Ramsden’s. Harry Ramsden’s restaurants offer battered and fried cod or haddock, as well as baked fillets. In their quick service restaurants, they offer their fish and chips (cod, haddock, plaice) as well as fish fingers, and have over 40 locations in the UK. Many consumers of fish and chips purchase the food regularly: nearly a quarter visit the shops on a weekly basis.

“Fresh for you” (frisch für dich), a Nordsee concept, is a response to consumer demand for freshly prepared products.

In Germany, the Nordsee chain provides a type of fast food restaurant that is focused specifically on seafood products. The company, which celebrated its 120th anniversary in April 2016, prides itself on a “tradition” of fish shops. Nordsee is the third largest fast food company in Germany, behind only McDonald’s and Burger King; it has 373 restaurants, primarily in Germany and Austria, though it also has locations in several other European countries and in Dubai. As a seafood-focused chain, its variety of products and preparations stand in contrast to typically single seafood menu offerings by other chains. Products served at the restaurants include dishes of baked Alaska pollock, grilled pollock or plaice fillet, or cape-hake fillet, each served with sides of vegetables. Modern shop designs and innovative products invite a wide range of customers to the fresh fish and seafood on offer. The range of products has been further expanded with a “fish to go” concept, where store-made snacks, salads, and drinks are available as takeaway options. Consumers’ desire for fresher products also led the company to develop “fresh for you” (frisch für dich) products, where dishes were freshly made to order. Nordsee notes, however, that the majority of its German and Austrian consumers — about 80 percent — are self-proclaimed “fish lovers.”


Healthy eating trends show potential for growth.

In the food service industry in general there have been trends toward healthier products with fresher ingredients. Organic or sustainably sourced seafood is also growing in popularity. At Nordsee, for example, over 80% of the fish products are sustainably sourced or certified organic. The fast food industry, which initially emphasised taste and convenience over health, has also responded to consumers demanding higher quality ingredients and greater variety in menus.

In the UK, fish typically attracts older consumers, with 34% of all fish eaten by those over age 65. While fish fast food is still predominantly prepared by deep-frying, some retailers are taking advantage of the opportunity to create healthier options that feature fish. Sushi has also seen an increase in popularity, especially among younger consumers. Takeaway sushi chains like Yo! Sushi, which has locations across the UK, Ireland, United States, Denmark, Norway, and the Middle East, provide many consumers with the convenience they desire, as well as healthier lunch and dinner options. These “sushi bars” offer rolls for quick takeaway that include salmon, shrimp, tuna, squid, seabass, scallop, and crab.

Despite the enduring popularity of fish and chips in Britain, recent analyses have shown changing consumer tastes for takeaway. Data published by the National Food Survey in 2016 show that consumers are favouring other meat-based options, like kebabs, and global cuisines, while whitefish sales have declined. On the other hand, salmon and shellfish sales have increased in the British market, which has been credited to the marketing of the benefits of omega-3; however, these types of seafood still have minimal presence in fast food.

Fast-food outlets typically focus on their convenience and affordability when attracting consumers. Two oft-cited reasons for lack of fish consumption is the complexity of preparation and the high price, so greater fast food options may be able to help combat these reservations regarding eating fish. Seafood from fast food chains is not simply for grab-and-go meals, but has also been seen to be the source of family dinners: industry data shows that over 55 percent of people purchase fish and chips to be eaten in the home as a family meal. The large increases in demand for fish products during Lent also show that the fast food options are popular as meat alternatives. Fish products can be healthier than other fast food options, as whitefish is much lower in saturated fat than red meat, particularly when it is prepared baked or grilled. Fish fast food can provide an alternative to meat or chicken, or appeal to consumers who prefer fish; the expansion of such offerings has the potential to provide consumers the healthy, convenient dining options that they desire.

Katie Duggan
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