Shrimp, swordfish and pollack may never quite take the place of beef, pork and poultry at Midwestern dinner tables.
But the local taste for fish seems to be strong enough to keep the seafood sections of some local grocery stores anchored firmly in place. At least that's the opinion of several grocers and a local seafood wholesaler.
Fish suppliers cast their nets into the Midwest market during the 1980s as health fears about red meat sent people looking for alternatives to beef and pork.
One of the first retailers to cater to those tastes was the Dillon grocery store chain, which started offering fresh seafood during the early 1980s. Now 27 of the 63 Dillon stores in Kansas, including the three in Lawrence, have seafood sections, says Ken Keefer, director of advertising and public relations at the Dillon headquarters in Hutchinson.
"WE OFFER virtually all kinds of seafoods, `fresh from the oceans of the world,' as we like to say," Keefer said. "They're flown in fresh through a Seattle supplier."
The Food Barn chain also moved into the fresh fish market during the '80s. The local Food Barn, 1900 W. 23rd, has had a special section for about four years said Clarence Carlton, manager.
"It took off real well," Carlton said. "We've experienced real good sales for it, especially during the winter time and the Lenten season. I think it's here to stay. . . . I'm real happy with the way it's been here. As far as I can see in the future, it looks like it's going to be in demand all the time."
Other local grocery stores have stayed out of the fresh fish market, with most selling frozen seafood products.
"It's hard to get fresh fish in the middle of Kansas," says Joe Schmidtberger, owner of Alvin's IGA, 901 Iowa. "We sell a lot of frozen fish. But it's not a real big thing."
THE ONLY local grocer contacted last week who said fish sales have slacked off was Roger Kuker, owner of Roger's Food Center, 608 N. Second.
"I just don't sell that much fish. We're so limited on space, we carry just your basic frozen fish items," Kuker said. "We sell less than we used to because of the cost. Especially things like shrimp, they just run up so high we just don't sell that much of it any more."
Jim Lewis, who owns Checkers Foods, 2300 La., said although he did deal with a supplier at one time who handled fresh fish, he generally sells frozen seafood products in his deli department.
"Truly a fresh product is very difficult to get back into the Midwest," Lewis said. "A lot of times, I tend to think the quality is better in the frozen product."
LEWIS said most of the stores that have seafood departments, even those with service counters, contain seafood products that are "slacked off," a term used instead of thawed out, he said.
Lewis says he thinks fish accounts for between 1 percent and 3 percent of the total store sales, while beef, pork, chicken and smoked meats amount to about 18 to 20 percent of the business. Beef is still king of the meat department, capturing 30 to 40 percent of the business, he said.
Lewis said he recently attended a Food Marketing Institute in Chicago for grocers that offered a special section on seafood marketing.
He said the institute indicated that already-prepared frozen seafood was going to be a big seller, mainly because many people don't have the time it takes to prepare fresh seafood.
"It's going to be popular with the microwave generation," he said.
REX LOBER, assistant director of meat operations for Falley's Inc., which owns Food 4 Less, 2525 Iowa, said sales of fish have gone up in all of Falley's 30 stores in Kansas, Missouri and Texas.
"Our sales on fish have picked up over the last two to three years," he said.
Lober said the stores carry frozen or thawed seafood products.
Harwood's Wholesale Meats, 3103 Iowa, also sells frozen fish. But an employee there said most of the business's sales are in meat.
Meanwhile, Keefer of the Dillon stores said the chain's seafood departments are making a splash with customers.
They offer all kinds of ocean fish and shellfish and lobsters, he said. The departments also sell clam chowder and some fresh prepared seafood salad, he said. The departments also offer a preparation service and feature special ovens for broiling fish.
KEEFER SAID the service feature has made seafood more attractive to people who weren't familiar with how to prepare it. Customers also can get recipes and tips from those who work in the seafood department, he said.
However, "this is still beef country and that's still the big commodity," Keefer said.
Sheila Ward, seafood manager at Food Barn, said her sales "are real high."
Ward said many people who are on different weight-loss programs come to her to get certain amounts of fish, she said.
"I sell a lot of white fish, orange roughy and sole," she said. "Catfish is a real popular item around here."
But the No. 1 seller is shrimp, she said.
"We get fresh fish three times a week. It's flown in. We get it the next day after it arrives," she said.
WARD SAID seafood is popular among Kansas University students.
"A lot of people, for special occassions, buy lobster," she said. "It's a gourmet thing for students. They do it to impress their dates."
Roger Skeffington, owner of North Atlantic Fisheries Co., Rt. 2, is a fish wholesaler whose family has operated a NAFCO Canada, a seafood business in Newfoundland, since 1515.
"The most popular species sold in this area are shrimp and salmon," said Skeffington, who started up his business locally three years ago. "You do have a turnover of lobsters here that is pretty healthy."
Nationally, fish amounted to 15.4 percent of the food Americans ate last year, compared to about 69 percent for meat products, he said.
Locally, Skeffington says he sells mostly to restaurants, taverns and households in Lawrence, Baldwin, Eudora and Ottawa.
"As far as percentages go, I'd say it's going to grow 2 to 3 percent this year in the Midwest," he said.