High tide for seafood

Michaelas restuarnt, food, main courseAs Australia’s appetite for seafood grows, many industry experts are acknowledging the business benefits of including seafood on your menu. By Tamara Morley

Australians’ long-held love affair with steak and sausages is making room for a new player—seafood. While the traditional romance is far from over, red meat is no longer the mainstay of the Australian diet.

In November 2006, Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz, Minister for Fisheries Forestry and Conservation, released a report that revealed that 27 per cent of Australian consumers are eating more seafood compared to just a year ago. The Seafood Consumption Omnibus, undertaken by the Australian Government’s Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, also found that 54 per cent of Australians eat seafood at least once a week.

Despite the increased demand for seafood in Australia, the nation’s consumption of seafood is relatively low when compared with other countries. According to Roxane Lancaster, principal of seafood marketing and sales consultants Fishbizz, Australians today eat nearly 18 kg of seafood per person per annum, compared with 8.5 kg of seafood consumed per person annually 10 years ago. This is significantly less than the Japanese, who consume 213 kg of seafood per person annually, she says. Australians also consume 142 kg of red and white protein (beef, lamb, pork and poultry) per person per year.

Vincent Lee from seafood importer Oceanic Food has noticed a significant increase in demand for seafood in Australia over the past few years. Oceanic Food predominantly supplies seafood to large Australian distribution groups or wholesalers, such as NAFDA members and Countrywide, which sell to restaurants.

“Australia is predominantly a meat-eating culture; people are much more familiar with their steaks, their chicken, their pork. But in recent years we’ve seen a big following for seafood, in particular for prawns. It has really skyrocketed over the past five or six years,” says Lee, citing Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that indicate that Australia imported 9,365 metric tonnes of prawns in 2000-01 compared with 23,084 metric tonnes in 2005-06.

Lee attributes Australians’ increasing consumption of seafood to a greater awareness of its health benefits, Australia’s multicultural society and improvements in aquaculture technology. Consequently, there are significant business benefits for restaurateurs who include seafood on their menus.

“It is definitely a healthier food,” says Lee. “So when people don’t want to eat heavier meals it’s a viable alternative, and one which people are generally willing, and do, pay more for. It adds diversity to the menu, and it lifts the reputation of the establishment.”

The purchase price of some seafood is not necessarily more expensive than some meat, says Lee. “If you look at the cost of cooked prawns imported from Thailand, the purchase price is not that different from chicken. The cost of the raw material is on a par, and restaurants can charge a premium for the dish.

“Generally, seafood dishes contain less seafood than other meat dishes contain meat. It’s something that costs similar that you can sell less volume of for a higher price,” he says.

De Costi Seafoods supplies seafood to restaurants, clubs, hotels and private caterers predominantly in Sydney. It exports to overseas restaurants, has 18 franchised retail stores that sell direct to the public, and a distribution centre that supplies Coles, Woolworths, IGA and ALDI stores.

De Costi Seafoods sources local and imported seafood. “We have mid-to-lower class calibre restaurants or cafés which are quite happy to buy on price alone, and generally some of the imported products are cheaper than the local products,” says Frank Theodore, De Costi Seafoods’ sales manager. “Our mid-to-top end businesses focus on local produce.”

Theodore has noticed an increased demand for seafood. “We’ve found over the last 10 years to today, the demand for seafood in hospitality has literally doubled—it’s huge, and it has more than doubled in retail,” he says.

“We’re becoming better eaters, smarter eaters; we know what is good quality versus ordinary now. It used to be a snag on the BBQ, sausages and steak, but it’s prawns and octopus now.

“When people go out for dinner, they are thinking seafood nowadays. Seafood is not really considered that special occasion meal like it used to be.”

Theodore helps chefs plan restaurant menus, which includes considering seasonal produce. “The beauty with seafood is there is so much variety it can never be boring,” says Theodore.

“Baby octopus and mussels were some of the things you would find that were popular in the European community and a handful of restaurants 10 years ago. Today, I don’t think there’s a restaurant in Sydney that hasn’t got octopus on the menu,” he says.

The demand for seafood has prompted some restaurateurs to change their menus, says Theodore. “Even certain restaurants that were predominantly steakhouses in the past, half their menu is seafood now. It’s a demand that restaurateurs have acknowledged. It’s pretty much ‘listen to your customers and give them what they want’.”

Brian Kirby, owner of Daniel’s Steak & Seafood in Sydney, is testimony to those restaurateurs who have adjusted their menus to meet changing consumer demands.

“Daniel’s, when it first started, was a steakhouse,” says Kirby. “When I bought it I thought ‘we need to have more alternatives’. Particularly for the people who come in at night; they don’t necessarily want a steak.

“We’re finding that there is more interest in seafood now. Our [customer] consumption rate of seafood has certainly gone up within the last 12 months. There’s such a big demand for seafood; people just love it.”

Kirby cites Australians’ greater awareness of seafood’s health benefits as being among the reasons for the demand. “Years ago people used to have steak nearly every day, or at least three or four times a week. That’s not the case today. People are watching their diet and weight. We’ve noticed a big upturn in the consumption of seafood, particularly good fish, scallops, prawns and oysters.”

Kirby says Daniel’s supplies predominantly local seafood “unless we can possibly avoid it.” “I think it’s a better product having local seafood. There are restaurants that use frozen seafood. It’s chalk and cheese. You’ve got to compete with that. There are a lot of people out there that don’t realise that it has been frozen—the prawns or fish—but they are becoming more aware of all of this.

“If you don’t have a good restaurant or good food, people won’t come back. Your menu does help. You’ve got people paying good money for seafood so you’ve got to have the best.”

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