Wait. Did we just write "Subway" and "offering Wild Alaska Salmon" in the same sentence? Yep. On Feb. 9—Ash Wednesday—Subway restaurants in eight upper Midwest markets began serving Applewood smoked Wild Alaska Salmon. Customers can get it in a sub, in a wrap sandwich or on a salad. Because the salmon has already been cooked during the smoking process, it can be eaten cold, a factor that makes everything from supply chain logistics to in-store handling procedures simple and safe. Pricing is "competitive with other Subway offerings," a company spokesperson tells us.
Subway will offer Wild Alaska Salmon for an unspecified limited time, but we're betting that sales will be strong. This isn't just any fish sandwich. Data Essentials Research, a marketing firm that analyzes chain restaurant trends reported last summer that "Alaska Seafood" ranks second only to "Oreo" in terms of menu appearances and overall visibility in the country's top 500 restaurant chains.
These Subway operators are using salmon to offer customers additional meatless choices during Lent. The chain's standard menu features tuna, a "seafood and crab" surimi product, plus a vegetarian sub. They apparently thought they were missing a sales opportunity if they didn't have another seafood option. TV and radio campaigns and in-store signage will help prime the pump for Wild Alaska Salmon sales.
And just how big of a sales opportunity are we talking about? It's tough to put an accurate number on the size of the Catholics-foregoing-meat-on-Lenten-Fridays market. But just the top-level statistics on U.S. Catholics suggest that the number could be significant in certain markets and regions.
The Catholic Church is the largest religious body in the United States, with 64 million baptized members. That's four times as many as the second-largest church.
Some areas of the country are particularly Catholic. Rhode Island (63% of the population are Catholic), Massachusetts (49%), Connecticut (42%), New Jersey (41%), New York (40%), Louisiana (32%), Wisconsin (32%), Illinois (32%), Pennsylvania (31%) and New Mexico (31%) are the top 10 U.S. states with the highest proportion of Catholics. Right behind them are other high population states such as California (24%), Texas (21%), Michigan (25%), Ohio 20%) and Florida (12%).
Look for some of these percentages to climb as immigrants from such heavily Catholic countries as Mexico (95% Catholic) and Colombia (92%) and Brazil (87%) continue to flock to the U.S. (For more on the Catholicism boom, see the "Bible Belt Catholics" story in the Feb. 14 edition of Time.)
These are big numbers, to be sure. But the more important number for most operators is Friday sales, particularly Friday evening sales. If they are slumping during Lent, and your primary marketing area is heavily Catholic, you may wish to reconsider your Lenten strategy.
It could be as minimal as the tack taken by fast-food feeder Wendy's. The QSR giant does not offer a fish sandwich on its regular menu, yet does add one during Lent. Or it could be as basic as that of 64-store Pollo Tropical. This year the Miami-based chicken chain added a $4.99 value meal featuring tilapia that will run through Easter.
But let's examine the Lenten opportunity from the perspective of fast casual leader Chipotle Mexican Grill. It doesn't offer any seafood on its protein-laden regular menu and doesn't put any on for Lent, either.
This year, the chain has launched a PR blitz designed to keep its customers coming in, even if they're skipping meat on Fridays.
"We offer an array of vegetarian selections so Catholics don't have to sacrifice too much," says Steve Ells, founder and CEO of Chipotle. "People looking for appropriate meatless lunch and dinner choices during Lent should try Chipotle's vegetarian menu options.
"Chipotle fans observing Lent will be delighted to know they don't have to swear off Chipotle at this time of year," he continues. "In fact, it is the perfect time to try those often neglected foods like guacamole, burritos and tacos—vegetarian, that is."
Something like this approach, or as splashy as Subway's, might be worth taking by your operation—if your Friday sales slump during Lent. For our money, we're going to take our cue from Subway diet guy Jaret and opt for the Wild Alaskan Salmon. It seems easier than going into Chipotle and having to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to create a meatless burrito we'd actually want to eat.