The Real Reason Every Chain Is Suddenly Introducing a Fish Sandwich

From the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish to the new Popeyes Cajun Flounder, the battle of the fish has become a spring tradition

Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Getty Images

Gastro-nomics is a new column about the intersection of food, business, and culture.

Around this time each year, drugstores lay their pastel eggs, Peeps appear in bins for impulse buys, and enormous hams take center stage in deli cases across America. If Easter-themed products are a neon-colored commercial iceberg, there’s also a lesser-seen segment swimming below the surface. I’m talking about fish sandwiches.

Typically, in the late-winter weeks following the Super Bowl, restaurant chains around the United States begin to unveil their seasonal fish offerings. And this year was no exception, with new sandwiches from several big chains, including Popeyes and Wendy’s. This annual fish parade happens without much explanation or context, in the way that most normal promotions begin. But the history of fish sandwich season has a complexity and durability that reaches far beyond, say, the great Ghost Pepper trend of 2015.

McDonald’s now sells roughly 300 million Filet-O-Fish sandwiches a year, a quarter of them during Lent.

The story begins back in the 1960s when a McDonald’s franchisee in Cincinnati named Lou Groen faced a pressing dilemma. Each week, his heavily Catholic consumer base would customarily abstain from eating meat on Fridays, leaving him with little foot traffic one day a week and jeopardizing his business. To find an alternative that would keep his store afloat, Groen took inspiration from a fish sandwich at a nearby restaurant and created his own battered version with tartar sauce.

But before he could introduce the item, he had to get permission from McDonald’s chief Ray Kroc, a man known for his stubborn disposition. After besting the Hula Burger — Kroc’s strange grilled-pineapple-and-cheese sandwich concept — in a market test, Groen’s offering would be dubbed the Filet-O-Fish and, in 1965, become the first national addition to the original nine-item McDonald’s menu. Notably enough, it was also the company’s first non-hamburger sandwich option.

“You fellows just watch,” Kroc carped in his autobiography after the Filet-O-Fish became a permanent menu item. “Now that we’ve invested in all this equipment to handle fish, the Pope will change the rules.” And, shortly thereafter, Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council did loosen the fasting regulations to adapt to post-war cultural shifts.

According to the menu research firm Datassential, restaurants typically see a 20% increase in seafood sales during Lent.

Kroc’s gripes notwithstanding, the sandwich became a beloved McDonald’s staple, particularly during Lent, the 40-day period during which millions of Catholic consumers avoid eating meat. McDonald’s now sells roughly 300 million Filet-O-Fish sandwiches a year, a quarter of them during Lent.

Over the years, more restaurant chains have developed their own Lenten season menus to target the roughly 50 million Catholic consumers in the United States as well as the increasing number of diners seeking out alternatives to beef. According to the menu research firm Datassential, restaurants typically see a 20% increase in seafood sales during Lent. But that statistic hardly speaks to the fish sandwich mania of the present moment, which shows no sign of scaling back.

Last month, Popeyes fanatics were sent reeling by word of a new entry, the Cajun Flounder Sandwich, the company’s second new sandwich since its fried chicken sandwich threw the balance of the universe askew. This was right after Wendy’s debuted its Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich, an Alaskan pollock number that replaced the chain’s old cod seasonal sandwich. The early weeks of 2021 also saw new piscine options come to market from Quiznos (Old Bay Lobster Club), Del Taco (Honey Mango Crispy Jumbo Shrimp Taco), and Buffalo Wild Wings (Beer-Battered Fish Filet Sandwich). With so many restaurants offering similar items all at once, some companies go on the offensive. Last year, Arby’s used social media to target consumers who publicly aired grievances about the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, offering them free Arby’s fish sandwiches in a bid to get them to switch.

That these newborn minnows will have to square off against the long-standing bounty of fish sandwiches to arrive in recent years has become something of a culinary fascination. Each winter, a huge span of media from food publications to major news outlets to clickbait clearinghouses wait with baited breath for fish sandwich news — and offer reviews, rankings, and first-person odes on the topic that would rival Proust.

As features go, my personal favorite is the Catholic News Agency, which has gotten into the habit of not only ranking the fish sandwiches on a scale of 1–5 fishes each year, but adds a special “pandering” bonus to brands only offering the sandwich during Lent. In some ways, this gets at the sole, if you will, of what Fish Sandwich Season is all about: A more comprehensive consideration of the appetites of consumers.

Journalist. Author of Drive-Thru Dreams. The Atlantic alum. Work in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Texas Monthly, and elsewhere.

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