- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Lenten season is often treated as a time for fasting. But for restaurants in the seafood sector, it means big business for the next 40 days.

Wednesday marked the first day of the 2014 Lenten season, which means that starting Friday — and for the next six Fridays — those practicing Lenten traditions will have to find something other than red meat to eat.

“It’s a big time for seafood in general. It’s kind of our Christmas,” said Charles St. Clair, spokesman for the Long John Silver’s chain. “Our regulars continue to come in, but we get a big influx of those who come through religious observations.”

Lent is the 40-day season that focuses on penance, sacrifice and preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Lent ends Easter Sunday, April 20. One of the common practices is to abstain from red meat, pork, and poultry on Fridays. Fish and other seafood is permitted.

Mr. St. Clair said the fast-food seafood chain sees a 25 percent to 40 percent increase in sales during Lent.

“That varies by region … where there are heavily Catholic neighborhoods, we’ll really see an increase,” he said. “There’s always been the boost in the Lenten season in our sales. It’s not a surprise to us.”

While Long John Silver’s has been able to profit from these 40 days for years, Mr. St. Clair said there’s an “ebb and flow” in terms of competitors getting on the no-meat bandwagon.

“This year, there seems to be a very heavy proliferation of non-traditional seafood [quick service restaurants]” participating, he said.

In late February, the Chinese fast-food chain Panda Express introduced its new menu item Golden Szechuan Fish, proclaiming the addition “just in time for the Lenten season.”

The meal features seven pieces of fried cod and vegetables, and joins a menu that also includes a Honey Walnut Shrimp dish.

“I think there’s more attention being paid to what customers want,” said Linda Duke of Duke Marketing, a San Rafael, Ca.-based company that handles advertising for multiple fast food restaurants. “Especially in California, we’re almost 46 percent Latino, 90 percent are Catholic. A lot of them won’t eat meat during that whole time. They need a fish taco, shrimp, something. A lot of restaurant chains have realized making a fish offering during this time is profitable.”

Last year, online food ordering company GrubHub surveyed orders during the Lenten season and found that seafood dishes rose as much as 15 percent during Lent, depending on the fish included in the meal. The survey showed that both catfish and snapper orders bumped up by 15 percent during Lent, followed by lobster and whiting at 13 percent. Other fish such as salmon and cod saw single-digit boosts, while crab orders dropped off by 8 percent during Lent.

Vincent Arrunategui, general manager of Kingfishers Seafood Bar and Grill in Solomons, Md., said Ash Wednesday was particularly busy for the waterfront restaurant, and he anticipated a similar boost during the next month.

“Definitely with the weather change people are looking for more seafood, but we do have a rather large Catholic community down here,” Mr. Arrunategui said. “We’re the kind of restaurant people don’t always come to once a week, but sometimes once a month as a treat. We definitely see those families and I would predict that on Fridays we’ll see an increase in sales.”

Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Legal Seafoods, said his Cambridge, Mass.-based business has always seen a bump in business during Lent.

“It’s sort of the hallmark for the time of year, sort of a heralding of spring,” said Mr. Berkowitz. “We certainly see an uptick on Ash Wednesday and certainly on Fridays during the Lenten period, no question. It’s funny, growing up we had a family fish market. We were the only Jewish family that lived for Lent and Fridays.”

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