Lent boosts businesses

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Jocelyn Malicoat prepares a plate in the kitchen of the Hookies Fire Company in Tyrone on Feb. 22. The Tyrone fire company has offered a fish dinner over the Lenten season for many years.

With the start of the Lenten season on Wednesday, fish dinners and seafood buffets will pop up all across the area.

At least two organizations got a head start on the Lenten season.

The Excelsior Volunteer Fire Company of Bellwood and Blazing Arrow Hook and Ladder Fire Company of Tyrone started their fish dinners Feb. 15.

“We go for ten weeks. I want everyone to try my fish before they go somewhere else. When they see how good it is, they will come back. We have been doing this for about 20 years,” Excelsior Treasurer Bob Whiteford said.

The fish dinner is important for the fire company.

“This is the second biggest fundraiser the fire company has. This keeps the fire company running,” Whiteford said. “Last year our smallest turnout was 530 and our largest was 890. We serve between 7,000 and 8,000 fish dinners a year.”

Although drawing smaller crowds, the fish dinners are also important to the Hookies.

“The money we raise goes to the firemen for supplies and equipment. We run through Good Friday. We also do this in the fall during football season. It is one of our bigger fundraisers,” President Ken Noel said.

Phoenix Volunteer Fire Company of Hollidaysburg also runs a fish dinner through Good Friday.

“It is a big fundraiser for us. We usually get between 300 and 400 people, but it varies. We use the proceeds to purchase equipment, fuel for the vehicles and other items for the fire company,” said Secretary Bob Dilling.

Dilling said delivery service is available in the Hollidaysburg area for people ordering five or more dinners.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Newry is well known for its all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, which starts Friday and will run through Good Friday.

“We probably serve about 750 each week, or about 5,200 during Lent. All of the money raised goes to the school,” said Ed Hazenstab, event coordinator. “Last year, we added the large shrimp and that went over well. We get the seafood from Shelco. He says we don’t charge enough. We have everything from soups to desserts to drinks — all is included.”

Second Avenue United Methodist Church in Altoona also offers an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“We’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. We average about 150 every Friday night. Years ago we would get 250 to 300, but we are still doing well,” said Don Ferguson, youth group treasurer. “We use it as a youth fundraiser. It has always been for the youth, to support them throughout the year to go to camps and retreats. We’ve been pretty successful over the years. Every year is different. We made about $5,000 for six weeks last year.”

The kids do everything but the cooking.

“We try to teach them some responsibility — we don’t want everything handed to them,” Ferguson said.

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Altoona is expecting bigger crowds for this year’s fish dinner.

“In the past, we did 650 meals. This year, we will prepare for 700. We have been turning people away and one of the other churches is not doing it this year, so we may get some of their people,” said Charlotte Sommer, church secretary and fish dinner co-chairperson. “The price of fish went up 26 percent, but we are only raising our price $1. This is the first time we have increased the price in eight years.”

Lent is a busy time of the year for Shelco Seafood of Hollidaysburg.

“Lent is extremely important to us. A lot of churches do fish fries. They go from buying nothing to quite a bit. St. Patrick’s buys a ton from us. I can’t believe how much fish they go through. Between retail outlets and churches, it probably doubles my business,” said owner John Barazotto.

Grocery stores like Giant Eagle also see an increase in sales during Lent.

“At Giant Eagle, we see a notable double-digit percentage increase in seafood sales throughout the season. This year, we will have promotions on an assortment of seafood items as we highlight popular varieties like wild scallops, wild salmon, cod and pollock — all sourced from the United States,” spokesman Dick Roberts said.

The Lenten season is also very important to area restaurants.

“From Ash Wednesday through Good Friday we sell two to three times more seafood than the non-Lenten season. It is like our Christmas. It gives us momentum for the rest of the year,” said Stephanie Mattingly, Long John Silvers vice president of marketing. “Last year during the eight days — Ash Wednesday and Fridays through Good Friday — we sold over 650,000 pounds of whitefish, 116,000 pounds of shrimp, more than 6 million hush puppies and 1 million french fries. We expect to sell that much or more this year.”

Fish sandwiches are a big seller at McDonald’s.

“In the Johnstown/Altoona market, the average McDonald’s restaurant will sell 500 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches per week or over 3,000 during Lent, totaling an estimated 105,000 Filet-O-Fish,” said spokeswoman Angele Busch.

Lent also provides a shot in the arm to Traditions Restaurant and Bakery in Martinsburg.

“It sparks our business quite a bit. We have an all-you-can-eat fish fry on Friday nights. It doubles our typical Friday night sales,” said Arley Hooder, general manager.