Louisiana’s fishing and offshore drilling industries took it on the chin after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year. Did the restaurant world’s perception of the state’s once-bountiful seafood take a hit, too? Can you benefit from the rebound if it did?
Greater New Orleans (GNO), Inc., a regional economic alliance that includes most of Southeast Louisiana, commissioned a trio of studies last year to assess the impact of the BP spill on the state. The first two, released earlier this year, addressed fisheries and the offshore drilling moratoriums.
The third, released last week, is ominously titled “Brand Damage.” Its purpose: “analyze the effect of the oil spill on Louisiana’s brand with specific focus on
business development and seafood demand.”
The study, conducted for GNO by Lake Research Partners, quizzed the product’s core constituency: owners of 18 “national restaurant,” presumably chains. GNO wanted to know what the people who purchase, menu and market the area’s seafood thought about it post-BP.
What did they find?
“At the start of this research, GNO, Inc. hypothesized that the oil spill had significantly damaged national perceptions of Louisiana and Greater New Orleans, and that this impact was cumulative on top of the public opinion damage done by Hurricane Katrina and the recovery,” the report begins.
“Generally, our research did not support this prediction. The oil spill generally had a small impact on voters’ opinions of Louisiana and Greater New Orleans, with the significant exception of seafood,” the authors point out. “The demand for, and opinion of, Louisiana and Gulf seafood has decreased dramatically as the result of the spill.”
In the key part of the study, researchers asked restaurant owners how they thought their customers felt about Gulf seafood. The owners reported that roughly 19 percent of customers viewed Gulf seafood favorably in 2010, estimating that 75 percent did so in 2004. The owners also noted that fully half their customers had an unfavorable view of the area’s seafood in 2010, an attitude they reported no one as having in 2004.
“This change of opinion has the potential to significantly impact the type of seafood purchased by foodservice operations as price and customer feedback/demand were found to be the top factors which influence purchasing decisions,” the study concluded. “The combination of the low prices of imported seafood and the decreased customer demand could have a significant negative effect on the Gulf and Louisiana seafood industries.”
So should your restaurant stop buying and menuing seafood from this region just to be safe? Not so fast.
All of the above information came from restaurant owners, presumably able to discern from customer ordering behavior what will and won’t sell. As a counterbalance, GNO also surveyed 1,000 restaurant customers draw from a handful of major cities across the nation. More than half, 54 percent, had favorable or very favorable impressions of Gulf seafood. The number was four percent higher, 58 percent, when asked specifically about “Louisiana seafood.” On the negative side, 37 percent of this customer group held unfavorable or very unfavorable opinions about Gulf seafood, while 29 percent did so about Louisiana seafood.
So where does this leave your restaurant? Should you avoid these products, or proudly feature them on your menu? We can’t make that decision for you, but you should be aware that Louisiana has unleashed a powerful marketing campaign designed to get its seafood back in the game. Here’s how officials were describing it at the recent Boston International Seafood Show:
“The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board has embarked on a multi-year, multi-million-dollar rebranding initiative — aided, in part, through financial assistance from BP, the energy company — to rebuild trust in seafood products in the aftermath of the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf. Extensive seafood testing by federal, state and independent laboratories has given seafood from the Gulf a clean bill of health, with no concerns.”
Smart restaurant operators might want to be in position to benefit from this effort as it unfolds.