Lent on the Menu

How restaurants cater to the penitential season and why Catholics are flocking.

(photo: Shutterstock)

For Christians, the Lenten season is a period of sacrifice and abstention. For the restaurant industry, however, it is an exciting time of opportunity.

As customers seek out non-meat options for Friday dining, seafood restaurants are innovating their menus to meet the demand. Meanwhile, fast-food restaurants known primarily for their meat items are adding a little piscatorial punch to their own list of options.

Carl’s Jr. is touting its “Redhook beer-battered cod-fish sandwich,” a creation that boasts Redhook Extra Special Bitter ale as one of its ingredients. The Long John Silver’s chain, whose sales during Lent can increase by as much as 40%, is featuring “Norway lobster bites.” Wendy’s and Arby’s are each offering a signature fish sandwich for a limited time, too. 

Rather than develop new Lenten options, some companies choose to highlight year-round meatless choices. Five Guys is pushing its grilled-cheese sandwich, while Blimpie is plugging its tuna-based menu items.   


Papal Marketing and Moral Messaging

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers is featuring the “wild Pacific crab-cake burger,” a fried jumbo lump, blue and Pacific snow crab cake topped with arugula, roasted garlic aioli, oven-roasted tomatoes, lettuce and Parmesan cheese. In a decidedly unique approach to its Lenten marketing, the company extended an invitation to Pope Francis to stop into Red Robin to enjoy a burger and Instagram a picture of his meal. Should the Pope — urged on by Twitter-ers using the hashtag #RopeInThePope — accept the invitation, restaurant patrons will get to enjoy free crab burgers on the remaining Fridays during Lent.

Finally, there’s McDonald’s. Its iconic “Filet-O-Fish” sandwich was invented in 1962, preceding Instagram and Twitter by nearly half a century. Although the sandwich was created in Cincinnati for a predominantly Catholic market, McDonald’s has in recent years modified its advertisements for the Filet-O-Fish, downplaying its origin as a specifically Lenten alternative to hamburgers.

Asked by ABC News about the sales of the sandwich during Lent, a McDonald’s spokesperson commented, “While McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish is popular year-round, we know that many of our customers especially enjoy it during this season.”

“Growing up in the ’80s, I remember that McDonald’s used to actually name Lent in commercials and do ‘buy one, get one free’ Filet-O-Fish promotions specifically geared to Catholics,” said Andrew Weyrich, founder and CEO of the “Sinner2Saint App” and Weyrich Enterprises Inc. “I don’t hear McDonald’s talk about that in their ads anymore. I think their marketing departments have probably vetoed any religious references, at this point.”

This attitude of distancing from religion can work against businesses, according to Jeffrey Chandler, owner and manager of the 2nd Street Tavern in Emmaus, Pa. Chandler said that, while the majority of customers appreciate the non-meat menu specials catering to their Lenten needs, many of them would also seek to actively patronize businesses that are willing to acknowledge the religious significance of the season. 

“Unfortunately, many people these days are not inclined to step up for Christianity,” noted Chandler. 

“I would urge people to support those establishments that recognize our almighty Father.”


Penitential Abstinence

Weyrich, who is abstaining from meat for the entire Lenten season, recognizes that many restaurants’ movement away from meat-based diets is not an attempt to cater to religious beliefs but a sign they are getting “politically correct and are mainstreaming their menus.”

But he also admits that, while on-trend “vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and paleo choices” are not “Lent-specific,” they can nonetheless “work for your Lenten or Friday abstaining.” 

With so many appealing non-meat options on restaurant menus, Lenten abstinence has become something of a dichotomy: Substituting for meat is easy, while practicing penitential abstinence is harder than ever.

Perhaps this is what Pope Francis had in mind when he urged Catholics to guard against a “selfish, soulless seafood splurge.”

“Lent never tasted so good,” trumpets the print ad for Mathew’s Kitchen, a restaurant in St. Louis. Mathew’s invites diners to “Come every Friday (and Ash Wednesday)” to experience its Shellfish Fest, which features lobster pot pie, sea scallops in a garlic chili teriyaki sauce, shrimp risotto, New England lobster roll, lobster mac and cheese and shrimp scampi.

The Shellfish Fest may indeed be, according to Mathew’s advertisement, “as good as eating gets without meat.” And that’s exactly why Weyrich isn’t buying it.

“A big seafood splurge violates the spirit of fasting,” said Weyrich. “Fasting decreases a person physically, while increasing him spiritually. It is a gift! It should not be looked on as a laborious task or something to be avoided at all costs.”


Focus on Fasting, Not Fish

On the March 6 episode of Register Radio, author Emily Stimpson discussed her Register column “5 Reasons to Fast This Lent.”

“We kind of approach spiritual practices with an either/or mindset,” said Stimpson.

“But, also, we live in a culture of abundance. We actually do fast, but we don’t call it fasting: We diet. We are always restricting what we eat for the sake of our bodies, but we don’t think of restricting what we eat for the sake of our souls,” added Stimpson.

“In our hunger, we hunger for God. We depend on God. We depend on God for grace so we can do good acts. ... We are dependent creatures, and fasting reminds of how weak and vulnerable we really are.”

“Lent is a good time to start little fasts. Maybe it’s just fasting from cream and sugar [in coffee]. ... Maybe it’s skipping a meal or a particular type of food,” suggested Stimpson.

Meanwhile, at Chandler’s 2nd Street Tavern, the Lenten bill of fare includes the “classic fish and chips.”

“All restaurants should consider offering simple fish specials during Lent,” said Chandler. “Many folks are seeking something that cannot be met with anything other than the love of our heavenly Father. To that end, I believe anything that brings the focus to Lent — anything that draws someone closer to the possibility of considering God — is a good thing. Even if it’s as simple as a change in the menu.”


Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.