The most significant factors shaping seafood trends in foodservice are how suppliers and operators cope with myriad circumstances largely beyond their control.
“Supply-chain disruptions have fuelled many, if not all, the trend lines of seafood over the past few years,” shares Darren Frey, merchandising manager, Canada at Gordon Food Service (GFS). “Availability is often the first question asked from our customers, before any other historical topics come into play (i.e. sustainability).” As a result, Frey notes operators are often seeking regional/local species in the hope of securing reliable supply.
And, in the case of Halifax’s Drift restaurant, this strategy has proven successful. “The vision for Drift has always been to highlight Nova Scotia and its place on the Atlantic, so we were able to follow this guiding principle even with the pandemic’s influence,” says chef Jason McKenzie. “Focusing on local first has thankfully shielded us from most of the supply-chain issues, although there have been a few rare occasions when a boat could not go out due to crew members falling ill.”
For Colin Burslem, culinary director of Surrey, B.C.-based Joseph Richard Group, menu decisions around seafood have become heavily informed by availability and whether the cost equation makes sense.
When creating new seafood menu items, Burslem says his team starts with what is relevant to the concept, followed by “trying to identify the freshest product that’s available at the highest quality point that makes sense, from a price perspective, for the consumer.” And, he adds, “as we go through that process, it’s really looking at what is available.”
As Burslem points out, a number of factors have influenced seafood supply chains, from pandemic shut downs to labour shortages to sanctions against Russia. “That affected everything from King Crab, to sockeye salmon to black cod,” he says of the latter.
“But, despite the difficulties, Frey says, “We still see strong demand for seafood across the network. The perceived value proposition of seafood versus other protein and centre-of-the-plate items remains high for operators and consumers.”
That said, these factors are still creating shifts within the industry. “The demand has begun to shift towards more value-added or further processed seafood items to combat labour constraints within operators,” he adds.
On the menu
While the economic and supply factors impacting the industry have been a prevailing factor, these have combined with the influence of evolving consumer tastes to shape the seafood dishes on menus today.
According to Technomic Ignite menu data, dishes growing in popularity over the last year (year ending Q2 2022) indicate growth in globally influenced dishes, with dragon roll (up 30 per cent) and fish/shellfish tacos (up 16 per cent).
Further highlighting this trend, Katie Belflower, associate editor, Technomic shares, “Some of the fastest-growing sauces paired with seafood over the past year include peanut sauce (up 35 per cent), hot sauce (up 22 per cent) and pesto sauce (up 18 per cent). These sauce and seafood combinations are often appearing in global dishes, such as Asian-inspired noodle dishes with shrimp, Mexican seafood tacos and Italian seafood pastas.”
Calgary-based Craft Beer Market’s most recent menu update highlights some of these key trends, with new dishes including Cabo Fish Tacos (flour tortilla, spice-dusted tempura cod, fresh cabbage, jalapeño-lime crema, pico de gallo, cilantro and signature hot sauce) and Chili Prawn Fettuccine (prawns, chili, garlic, cherry tomatoes, arugula, olive oil, white wine, lemon butter, fettucine noodles, garlic breadcrumbs and fried capers).
When it comes to seafood flavours and preparations, Burslem notes, “Filipino cuisine is up and coming. The other trend I’ve noticed is a huge increase in Hawaiian preparations of seafood — whether it’s wrapped in banana leaves [or] served with passion fruit, it really opens up the palate to the freshness of the seafood.”
One of the most common ways Hawaiian-inspired seafood appears on Canadian menus is in poke dishes. Examples include the Tuna Poke Bowl ($27) at Hayloft Fish + Steak in Edmonton, which features marinated tuna, brown basmati rice, avocado, lightly pickled carrot and cucumber, black sesame, nori, pickled shimeji and maple-sesame sauce; and the Spicy Tuna Poke ($22) at JRG’s Richmond, B.C. pub, The Buck & Ear, made with sushi rice, soy-marinated tuna, crab, jalapeño, cucumber, pickled ginger, tempura puff, matchstick carrot and sriracha aioli.
These dishes also play into another trend Burslem has observed. “The consumer is way more open to consuming raw seafood,” he notes, explaining that this has expanded well beyond sushi and sashimi to include dishes such as poke, tataki and crudo.
Technomic data also backs up this observation, with seafood tartare among the fastest-growing seafood dishes on Canadian menus — up a whopping 40 per cent between Q2 2021 and Q2 2022.
Belflower also calls out ‘fish of the day’ as a key menu item that has seen significant growth in the past year (up 26 per cent). “The increase in ‘fish-of-the-day’ dishes could be due to supply-chain struggles and operators being flexible with what fish is available,” she notes.
Looking deeper at how the current operating environment has shaped menus, GFS’s Frey notes, “Pricing and inflation continue to bite on many items across the network.” And, as a result, “substitutes and value-added items have all increased in our warehouses as we have scrambled to source alternatives for our customers’ needs.”
Further, Burslem notes inflation has seen some once-common dishes dropped form menus. As examples, he points to cod and calamari as products that have seen inflated prices. In the instance of cod, it’s due to demand, but for calamari, it’s a factor of increased shipping costs.
“We have seen [calamari] as a mainstay on menus during the last few years, [but] because of the challenges with shipping and delivery costs, we can no longer offer that.” And, digging into the real numbers of how shipping costs have changed, Burslem shares, “Where it might have cost $500 to ship a container [of seafood] from around the world on a boat, now you’re looking at $21,000 for that same container to get to Canada.”
An additional pain point is the fact that skilled labour remains a core challenge in kitchens, which further influences menu offerings.
Burslem stresses that knowing how to properly handle a product can make a world of difference in a diner’s experience. “I just spent some time in a restaurant teaching our team how to sear a tuna steak,” he shares. “There’s nothing worse than seeing a beautiful piece of ahi tuna and then being served that medium-well — nothing reminds me more of a can of tuna than that.”
But, because training and retaining skilled staff is an ongoing challenge, he explains that some menu decisions may come down to: “Can we train our team to execute that consistently day in day out?”
For this very reason, “processed products continue to grow in popularity as labour is challenging all operators,” shares Frey.
Finally, given the current operating environment represents uncharted waters for the industry, staying informed and cultivating close relationships has become more important than ever.
To cope with and better insulate against supply challenges, Burslem says JRG will continue to work to source products locally while balancing cost/price. He also touts the value of “having a direct connection to the fishermen and the seafood producers across all levels,” when navigating this landscape.
As an example, he notes, “We had a heads up that it was going to be a poor year for spot prawns this year, so we didn’t go down that avenue [with menus].”
Given the unprecedented times, having this kind of insight is invaluable. As Burslem says, “The number-1 thing, in terms of making informed decisions, is the relationship with the frontline producers — be it the fisherman, the oyster farmer or muscle farmer.”
The United Nations proclaimed 2021 to 2030 the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The initiative seeks to stimulate ocean science and knowledge generation to reverse the decline of the state of the ocean system and catalyze new opportunities for sustainable development of this massive marine ecosystem.
And, while sustainability has often taken a back seat to much broader challenges, Darren Frey, merchandising manager, Canada, Gordon Food Service, notes, “Sustainable seafood has always been sought after, even through much of the recent years’ supply-chain disruptions. [And,] we see a strong resurgence of our customers getting back to this being the first question asked when visiting.”
“The two factors that I believe make a great seafood dish are simply flavour and responsibility,” says Jason McKenzie, chef of Freehand Hospitality’s Drift restaurant in Halifax.
Similarly, Joseph Richard Group’s culinary director, Colin Burslem identifies they key to a great seafood dish as “the quality, the traceability and consistency of that product.”
“We’re always trying to be responsible with the products that we’re buying, so we really had to do a lot of hard work over last couple of years with supply chain to make sure that the prawns that we’re sourcing and using them they’re coming in from sustainable farming practices,” he explains.
BY DANIELLE SCHALK