Long John Silver’s plans reboot just in time for Lenten fish fries

January 26, 2016

Christmas comes in February for seafood restaurant chain Long John Silver’s, which is launching a reboot of the iconic brand in 2016.

Pittsburgh is front and center for the new Long John Silver’s because of the region’s large Catholic population, the third largest nationwide, according to CEO James O’Reilly. Lent, the 40-day season of penance and avoiding meat at meals, starts Feb. 10, bringing with it boom sales for the privately held, Louisville, Ky.-based company.

“There will always be ups and downs in the restaurant industry, but it’s all about delivering consistency to customers,” the 49-year-old Mr. O’Reilly said. “The time of Lent for us is what Christmas is to retailers.”

Pittsburgh and the surrounding five counties have between 500,000 and 600,000 Catholics, according to Pittsburgh Catholic editor William Cone. The newspaper is preparing to publish its annual list of parish fish fries Jan. 29 in preparation for the start of Lent.

“It’s probably one of our most popular issues,” Mr. Cone said. “People wait for it all year.”

Mr. O’Reilly was in Monroeville Thursday for a daylong meeting with about 50 operators of its 17 corporately owned stores in the Pittsburgh area and some franchisees from outside the region. He planned to discuss the staffing increases at the restaurants — 300 new jobs are planned — and improvements to stores and parking lots.

One thing that won’t change much is Long John Silver’s menu, which has been criticized in recent years as unhealthy for its fat and sodium content. National Public Radio once called Long John Silver’s food a “heart attack on a hook,” but some meals have since been discontinued, as was the use of trans fats.

Baked fish options have always been available from the chain and one dinner has just 600 calories, Mr. O’Reilly said. What’s more, consumers can build meals with even lower calorie counts.

Having healthier options is key, said Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based marketing research outfit Technomic Inc. But consumers aren’t thinking of healthy eating when eating out.

“Quite frankly, consumers are looking for fried food,” he said. “Indulgence away from home is what they’re looking for and it’s also often very affordable.”

Mr. O’Reilly, who came to Long John Silver’s in March 2015 from hamburger chain Sonic Corp., takes over the reins at a difficult time as consumers have been shunning traditional fast food in favor of restaurants selling healthier fare. Long John Silver’s, which has about 1,300 stores nationwide, also has had changes in leadership.

Mr. O’Reilly replaced Mike Kern, who served as CEO for three years. Mr. Kern was part of investor group LJS Partners LLC that bought the restaurant chain from Yum! Brands Inc. in 2011. The company was founded in 1969 and did not disclose sales figures or the cost of the store upgrades, which are being carried out nationally as well.

Consumers will continue to seek out Long John Silver’s food, partly because there are few other places that focus on fried fish, said Warren Solochek, president of the food service practice at Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group Inc. New paint, lighting and other planned store improvements aside, the challenge for Mr. O’Reilly will be to keep the restaurant name in the consumer’s mind.

“What are they going to do to be top of mind?” Mr. Solochek said. “And he may have a plan to do that.”


McLent? Fish Hits Fast Food Menus for Holidays

April 23, 2013

fishIf you suspect there’s something fishy going on at your favorite fast-food joint, you’re probably right. The countdown to Easter is on, and that means everyone from McDonald’s to Quiznos is cashing in on the Catholic tradition of skipping red meat in favor of fish during Lent. This year, several chains have created new menu options for customers during this, the holiest of seafood seasons.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food service research and consulting firm, Technomic, told Nation’s Restaurant News that most restaurant chains should consider having some kind of fish or non-meat option for people observing Lent in order to prevent a loss of traffic during the season. Many chains are taking that advice and running with it this year.

McDonald’s, the largest of the fast-food chains, introduced a new item this year in addition to its popular Filet-O-Fish sandwich. Its snack-size Fish McBites are a guilt-free option for believers as well as those concerned with the environment, as they have been certified 100 percent sustainably sourced from the Marine Stewardship Council. The packaging for the Fish McBites, as well as the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, carries the council’s blue “eco-label.”

Other chains are also picking up on the trend of disclosing the sources of fish items on their menus. This season, Wendy’s is promoting its Premium Fish Fillet by advertising its 100 percent North Pacific cod origins. And Culver’s, a Midwestern fast-food chain, is selling a seasonal Northwoods Walleye sandwich.

“That’s part of the overall trend to improve perceptions of food and ingredients through marketing,” Tristano said, “so certain regions get called out. Marketers have enhanced perceptions with the way they’ve described menu items for years. Is it more appealing during Lent? Probably.”

Other chains that are getting creative with their Lenten offerings this year include Quiznos, which is promoting its Lobster and Seafood Salad sub, and Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, whose brand-new Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish sandwich has arrived right on time for the seafood season.


Is Lent a big event for operators?

February 14, 2013

Many Americans are beginning the 40-day period leading up to the Easter celebration. The rules for fasting can vary dramatically by which days and what types of food can be consumed. Some religious patrons abstain from all forms of meat and animal products while others make exceptions for food like fish, indicating that Lenten rules are evolving.

Although only part of our overall population observes Lent—about one-third of American adults, according to a 2009 study by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion—it is nonetheless significant to business. Operators should have a strategy in place to appeal to their customers and attract new customers or run the risk of losing visits to the competition.

Lessons can be learned from observing some major fast-food burger chains and their recent promotions.

fish1_500In addition to their signature Filet-O-Fish sandwich, originally developed for Lent, McDonald’s created new Fish McBites, leveraging smaller, shareable portions.

 

 

fish2_500Wendy’s went the “premium” route and promoted their Premium North Pacific Cod Fillet Sandwich, playing on a better-for-you approach.

 

 

fish3_500Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s went the route of “innovation” by creating a new Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich focusing on a healthier preparation approach.

 

 

Although it’s hard to say which menu item will have the greatest success, it’s clear that each of these strategies will provide customers with appealing alternatives and options that fit their needs during Lent.

For operators who don’t have the resources to create new products, calling attention to existing vegetarian and seafood products during Lent can show customers the importance operators place on their patrons’ beliefs. As more consumers seek healthful options, incorporating more seafood and vegetarian options will benefit all consumers in general and help to improve the overall perceptions of restaurant healthfulness.