Lenten traditions give big boost to fish sales

The start of the Lenten season with Ash Wednesday is a time of sacrifice for the faithful, but some businesses benefit from the change in habits.

Long John Silver’s sees an increase of 75 percent in sales on Ash Wednesday and sells almost a half million hush puppies on that day. The chain, which has a restaurant in Altoona, is expected to sell more than 21.5 million pieces of fish during Lent.

“We sell 100 percent Alaskan cod and whitefish, so we have a positive impact on the fishing industry. … With the number of Catholics in America and with the Lenten tradition of eating fish on Fridays, we sell thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds of shrimp, cod and tartar sauce. It is our best time of the year; it is our Christmas. We do the largest percentage of our sales during the Lenten season,” said spokeswoman Marilyn Nicholson.

Friday business also picks up at Tradition’s Restaurant, Martinsburg, and the Phoenix Restaurant, 300 Fourth Ave.

“It has a very big impact on our business. The start of Lent makes us busier. We serve between 300 and 400 people on Friday evenings during Lent. They start coming in at 4 p.m. We have an all you can eat fish dinner of Alaskan whitefish. We also serve haddock dinners. This year we have a new signature dish for Lent, salmon cakes,” General Manager Arley Hooder said. “Our chef Josh’s homemade crab bisque, people come from all around for it.”

Phyllis Russo, co-owner of the Phoenix, said, “We serve baked haddock and still use the Phoenix original recipe. We also offer a lot of fresh seafood and our chef makes different dishes. There is an increase, more people do go out to eat on Fridays during Lent.”

At McDonald’s restaurants, Lent is the most popular time for the Filet-O-Fish sandwich — last year, 25 percent of all Filet-O-Fish sandwiches were sold during the Lenten season, spokeswoman Jeanette DeBartolo said.

Lent is also a good time to be in the food distribution business.

“Lent increases our business by about 33 percent. The biggest sellers are our whitefish such as cod, pollock and haddock. We provide a lot of the seafood for the area churches and fire halls. The general public buys about anything,” said Dennis Sullivan, manager of Shelco Seafood Co., Hollidaysburg.

“Lent has a significant impact on our business; I would say we see a 20 to 30 percent increase in our business during the Lenten season. It is mostly raw and breaded seafood products. We also see increases in sales of macaroni and cheese, tartar sauce and cocktail sauce. They ride the wave of the increase in business of seafood,” said Robert E. Lee, president of W.S. Lee and Sons, Altoona.

Area grocery stores also see a spike in sales during Lent.

“Throughout the Lenten season at Giant Eagle we see a notable double-digit percentage increase in seafood sales and note elevated customer interest in seafood varieties like shrimp, tilapia and wild salmon in addition to our popular made-in-store hand-battered and panko-breaded Alaskan cod,” spokesman Dick Roberts said.

“While our seafood sales have been on the rise year-round, we do see a spike with Ash Wednesday and holy Fridays. We also sell a lot of fasnacht and paczki doughnuts in the days leading up to Lent,” said Weis Markets spokesman Dennis Curtin.

Lent is a busy time for many area churches who use fish dinners and buffets to raise money.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1400 Fifth Ave., begins serving its seafood buffet on Ash Wednesday.

“We usually put the money into the building fund or whatever is needed. We will use this year’s proceeds to redo the floor and pews and recarpet the sacristy and choir loft. We’ve been doing this for about 12 years and have raised between $75,000 and $100,000,” said parish chef Mark Pacifico.

St. Mary’s averages about 400 people per week.

“We have fried and baked haddock, fried clam strips, deep fried butterfly shrimp, our own made crab cakes. We have a special every week. The first week will be tuna noodle casserole,” Pacifico said.

Our Lady of Lourdes, 2716 Broad Ave., will begin offering its fish dinners this Friday. The money raised stays in the parish.

“It doesn’t go to the diocese; it is used to help people in need in our parish. It pays some of the bills. We raise about $25,000 over the seven weeks,” said Jim Schellhammer, parish cook.

Our Lady of Lourdes has been running its fish dinner for about 20 years.

“It started with fish squares and has blossomed into 700-800 meals each Friday. We do North Atlantic haddock, both fried and baked. We have a great group of older people who start Tuesday to defrost the fish and do the prep work for Friday. It is not a one day get everything ready deal. We have a wonderful group in their 70s and 80s who volunteer,” Schellhammer said.

The Second Avenue United Methodist Church Youth Group will hold its annual all-you-can-eat fish dinners beginning Friday. The buffet includes baked and fried fish, shrimp poppers, crab cakes and more.

The money raised is used for the youth group.

“The money is used to help defray expenses for the kids to attend church festivals and a summer camp they go to. We also teach the kids what it means to tithe to the church; 10 percent of what we raise goes to the church,” said Don Ferguson, dinner coordinator.

The dinners attract about 200 people each week.

“That is pretty good for a church our size. We’ve probably averaged about $4,000 in profit. Over the 20 years we’ve probably raised about $80,000,” Ferguson said. “It is for the youth group; they do the serving and the clean up. We have a lot of adult volunteers. It is a group effort. The adults do the cooking.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.