When people think about what’s stuffed inside a typical taco, fish isn’t always what comes to mind, said Wahoo’s Fish Taco co-founder and CEO Wing Lam.
“Fish is not usually the lead item for tacos,” he said. “People usually think carnitas, pork or chicken.”
But for Catholics observing Lent, Wahoo’s becomes the go-to place for that affordable, tasty alternative to meat.
“Lent gives us an advantage over the competition because when you think of fish tacos, you think of Wahoo’s,” said Lam, whose 30-year-old business includes a corporate office in Santa Ana and 70 locations throughout the U.S. and an outpost in Japan.
“It’s a cost-effective way to observe Lent and eat really good fish because the fish is wild-caught salmon and wahoo,” Lam said. “You can get a couple of great tacos that’s high-quality product for $7 or $8.”
The 40-day observance of Lent dates back to 325 A.D. and mimics Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, during which he fasted and prayed.
These days, about a quarter of Americans say they observe Lent, and over half of them say they plan to abstain from a favorite food or drink, according to a 2017 Lifeway Research survey.
That also includes abstaining from meat on Fridays – or throughout Lent, in some cases – prompting Catholics to seek out seafood restaurants for options. Meat-centric eateries have answered with Lent-friendly alternatives.
On Feb. 6, Wienerschnitzel announced the return of its Fish ‘N Chips from Feb. 12 to April 29, a menu item “just in time for Lent,” according to the hot dog chain.
The menu item includes two Alaskan pollock fish pieces with tartar sauce and French fries, starting at $4.59.
“Our Wienerschnitzel’s Fish ‘N Chips has become so popular we’ve made it an annual spring tradition.” said Doug Koegeboehn, chief marketing officer at Wienerschnitzel. “It’s simple, yet delicious – and the best part is that you don’t have to be celebrating Lent to enjoy it.”
Also just in time for Lent is El Pollo Loco’s return of Baja Shrimp on its menu, offered for a limited time at the California-based fire-grilled chicken chain.
Santa Monica Seafood, which also has a sister location in Costa Mesa, expects to serve about 1,200 lbs. of fish and seafood on a Friday during the Lenten season, about 200 more when compared to a typical Friday, said Eric Costelloe, director of retail operations for Santa Monica Seafood.
“We do see a significant increase in business,” he said. “It’s throughout the day, but mostly Fridays in the evenings. There’s also a lot of to-go orders.”
Most fin fish, such as salmon and halibut, are popular restaurant items during Lent, said Costelloe.
As a Lenten special, Santa Monica Seafood will generally lower the price of tilapia, he said.
“It’s an even more affordable option” for those who observe Lent, Costelloe said.
Jim Wasko, owner and manager at The Crab Cooker Restaurant and Seafood Market in Newport Beach, said he also sees a noticeable business uptick of 5 to 10 percent on Fridays and weekends during Lent at his Tustin and Newport Beach locations, especially at the start of the Lenten season.
While The Crab Cooker does not offer Lenten specials, fish such as cod, mahi-mahi, swordfish and Alaskan halibut are popular menu items.
“We have a lot of people who are faith-driven who come to the restaurants,” said Wasko, whose grandfather founded the Orange County business in 1951.
At Wahoo’s, whose employee base is Hispanic and Catholic, Lam said the company has been part of the Lenten conversation for the last four years, building awareness with the communities, especially with children, year over year.
Lam himself participates in the Lenten journey every year; this year he’s giving up beer.
“The most important thing is to sacrifice something that’s challenging,” said Lam, who gave up sweets one year and bread – specifically tortillas – another year. “It has to be hard.”
And when Wahoo’s compares its Friday sales in the spring to Friday sales during Lent, it’s no contest, Lam said.
“It’s not as good as the six weeks of Lent,” he said.
Just before Lent, Wahoo’s introduced a new menu item with a new protein: the crispy fish taco with haddock. With the new fish and a new menu item, Lam is projecting a 5- to 10-percent bump in sales this year, Lam said.
“We serve fish all the time and the timing was just perfect,” he said. “It’s a limited time offer but we hope it’s successful enough to be permanently on the menu.”