The Business of Fish , Restaurants and Lent
By Mark Sievers
Have you ever wondered why hamburger chains would promote a fish item
( usually a fish sandwich ) at all and only one a year ? They do it because of increased fish consumption during the 40 days of Lent and in particular Ash Wednesday and the six Fridays of Lent . This is a way to both accommodate the dietary desires of consumers and to take advantage of a seasonal shift in protein consumption patterns . This article will not only examine contemporary examples of this but also some related interesting historical origins and aspects .
The observance of Lent is among the oldest customs of Christians . In fact the practice dates so far back that exact origins suffer from some level of obscurity and conflicting viewpoints . Rather than discuss this in detail I will summarize some key historic points of this practice : .
1. As early as the first century AD the original Christians modified the Jewish fasting traditions from Tuesdays and Thursdays to Wednesdays and Fridays .
2. Some have traced the Season of Lent to approximately the third century .
3. The Teutonic word Lent originally meant merely the spring season but evolved since the Anglo-Saxon period to mean the 40 day period of Lent .
4. When the Church imposed fasting in Lent certain days were designated whereby it was forbidden to eat meat. These days in French are known as “jours maigres” or “ lean days” . Since fish came out of water and hence “cold” and also white , it was deemed pure and suitable for fasting food .
5. During the Middle Ages , the Church ordained a total of 166 days of fasting including the 40 days of Lent . This resulted in fish becoming a significant commercial resource . Charlemagne ( Charles the Great or Charles I ) ensured that his farms had plenty of fish ponds for producing eel , pike and other fish species . The farms then sold the fish which in turn created profits for the imperial treasury .
6. Over time Lenten observance traditions have evolved and become more flexible . Even denominations that never strictly adhered to fasting traditions still had a sense of “Lent awareness”
The restaurant and hospitality promotional action really starts before Lent . The day before Ash Wednesday is celebrated in various ways around the world . For most , it is known Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday “ and celebrated with various type of feasting . The feasting comes from the historic custom of using up household fats prior to the 40 days of Lenten fasting . Locally, it manifests itself with various celebrations including live music and other activities at Buddy’s , Furlongs , and most other bar establishments in town .
Restaurant chains and independents alike are keenly aware of changing consumer patterns during the course of the year including Lent . The Long John Silver’s chain , which was founded in Lexington and will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, always plans a strong fish promotion during Lent . For this chain , Ash Wednesday and the six Friday’s in Lent are typically the seven highest sales volume days of the year . The spike in business is particularly strong in areas with heavy Catholic populations with Bardstown being a Kentucky example . Currently they are promoting their Freshside Grille Smart Choices under 350 Calories menu ( www.freshsidegrille.com ) and declared February 24 “ Skinny Tuesday “ . The Captain D’s chain is focusing on their Double Booth promotion and positioning their entrée’s as a superior value proposition to casual theme restaurants .
The McDonalds chain is promoting their Filet-O-Fish sandwich with an offbeat humorous commercial . In 1962 , a Cincinnati McDonalds franchisee ( Lou Groen ) was concerned about his sales being negatively impacted by the heavy Catholic population of the Cincinnati area who did not eat meat on Fridays . He created the Filet-O-Fish sandwich which is now served in McDonalds restaurants throughout the world .
The Wendy’s chain is heavily promoting its Premium Fish Filet Sandwich made with a Panko breaded North Pacific Cod product . Golden Corral is promoting the Great American Seafood Tour . Some chains take a different approach . For example , the Gold Star Chili chain offers a meatless veggie chili . Other national chains and local independents have their own approaches .
Then, two days after Good Friday there is Easter which is a major family oriented dining event post church services . On this day it will be one of the lowest sales volume days of the year for some concepts . However , for others who have the appropriate concept and venue its an opportunity to demonstrate their culinary capabilities with an Easter buffet or other event . One example this year is the 1st Annual Easter Sunday Buffet ( April 12 ) at 11:00 at The Red Mile Clubhouse hosted by Bayou Bluegrass Catering ( www.bayoubluegrass.com ) .
In summary , Lent is an important personal experience for many . For restaurants , its a real shift in consumer behavior that must be contemplated in their business practices . .