Lent, the 40-day season of repentance that began on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter, is a huge deal for the seafood industry -- because Catholics and some other Christian faiths traditionally abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. And restaurants have been gearing up for the increased demand.
John Sackton, editor and publisher of market researcher Seafood.com, estimates that 40% to 50% of some types of seafood are sold for the year during Lent.
"It's significant, but not as significant as it used to be," he says.
A "Valuable Holiday"
Seafood restaurants across the country usually do a brisk business during the period of penitence. For instance, McCormick and Schmicks Seafood restaurant saw a 20% increase in business on Fridays, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. That's especially true in cities with large Catholic populations, like Pittsburgh . McCormick and Schmicks spokeswoman Tori Harms notes that Lent "is certainly a valuable holiday," and that the chain is running promotions during the season.
One big player in the seafood industry is McDonald's Corp. (MCD), which is running television commercials promoting its Filet-o-Fish. The fast food giant is America's largest buyer of fish fillets, according to John Sackton -- purchasing about 50,000 metric tons of seafood every year. That's such a large amount it has raised concerns about potential environmental harm. McDonald's is also working with the World Wildlife Fund, to develop guidelines for companies that supply its fish.
"The guy in charge of buying fish for McDonald's, he was really concerned with being able to buy fish 10 or 20 years from now," said Bob Langert, the company's vice president for corporate social responsibility, in an interview with GreenBiz.com.
And the company's efforts are showing results. The home of the Golden Arches says it has shifted purchases representing more than 18,000 metric tons of fish away from sources that are not sustainable, according to a company web page.
Catering to the Faithful
Though McDonald's is a major player in the seafood industry now, its start was hardly auspicious.
The Filet-O-Fish was invented by a McDonald's operator, Lou Groen in 1962. At that time, Groen was desperate to save his Cincinnati-area restaurant, the chain's first in the region. His customer base was largely Catholic -- and business was suffering especially during Lent. Groen recounted his tribulations in a 2007 Cincinnati Enquirer interview.
Frisch's (the local Big Boy chain) dominated the market, and they had a very good fish sandwich,"
"I was struggling. The crew was my wife, myself and a man named George. I did repairs, swept floors, you name it.
"But that area (where his restaurant was located) was 87% Catholic. On Fridays we only took in about $75 a day. ... All our customers were going to Frisch's.
"So I invented my fish sandwich, developed a special batter, made the tartar sauce and took it to headquarters."
As the article noted, McDonald's chief Roy Kroc wasn't keen on the idea at first -- because he was planning to market his own meatless creation called the Hula burger. Kroc, who is credited with turning McDonald's into an international phenomenon, offered to bet Groen that more customers would buy his sandwich than the Filet-O-Fish, if both were offered on the menu at the same time. Groen accepted and won, selling 350 sandwiches -- and according to the story, Kroc never told him how the Hula Burger sold.
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