Colorful beads, beer cans, margarita cups and random trash are the only reminders of Mardi Gras, or “Carnival,” the celebration that takes place in New Orleans before Lent, which is, according to Wikipedia, “…the Christian observance of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.” Many believers, especially Catholics, take this time to give up something during that 40-day period; something that would be a sacrifice, as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice when dying on the cross on Good Friday. But the biggest tradition among believers is not eating meat on Ash Wednesday or on Fridays, instead choosing to eat a close alternative–fish or seafood.
When the custom started to abstain from meat back during the early years of Christianity in Europe, it was never a rule that you could NOT eat fish, just that you could not eat meat. So since people tend to bend the rules as much as possible without technically breaking them, it was decided that eating fish on Fridays would be the exception. Hence, the explosion of churches (especially located in the Midwest, due to the high population of German Catholics) conducting weekly Friday night Fish Frys, where attendees began coming in droves to indulge on fried fish and other meatless options, enjoying the company and conversation of other believers.
The Impact of Lent on Restaurants and How They Have Responded
Restaurants across the nation recognized this sales opportunity for the millions of Christians observing the practice and finally began incorporating different seafood options into their menus. Fast-food restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon, too. McDonald’s has the Filet-o-Fish on the menu year-round, while others, such as Wendy’s, KFC, and Jack-in-the-Box, introduced seafood options available only during the Lent season. Even Panda Express, normally known for its Asian influence, debuted a new item called Peppercorn Shrimp, using yellow onions, red peppers, and stir-frying the dish in a sauce with Thai peppercorns.
Not all restaurants are incorporating seafood though; places such as Five Guys Pizza are placing the focus on meatless and/or vegetarian options. While Five Guys Pizza offers a grilled cheese sandwich year-round, its popularity is sporadic in comparison to its pizza; yet, during Lent season, its sales increase.
Most restaurants, both nationwide and local eateries, have either highlighted or introduced seafood or meatless options to cater to those customers celebrating the season, there are still those places that refuse to cash in on the sales opportunity.
Laura McGuire, of Chicago-based food industry consultancy, Technomic, says it’s imperative for restaurants to acknowledge their customer’s dietary restrictions during Lent.
“Alienating those who observe Lent on your menu could result in slower sales during this period,” she says, “as well as ultimately create customer dissatisfaction in the long term.”
Adding seafood, meatless or vegetarian options on a seasonal basis can attract new customers as well, according to McGuire. Plus, if the new item doesn’t test well with new and/or existing customers, it can be deleted from the menu for good. If your restaurant is hesitant to join the seafood/meatless craze during Lent season, just look at it as a test run. There’s always time to go back to the drawing board!