Like so many holidays, Lent is a time when many Americans focus on food. Unlike the traditional Thanksgiving feast or the New Year’s Eve champagne toast, Lent is a time for people to give up their favorite dishes.

About ¼ of all American consumers observe Lent – which means you’re bound to have some guests who change their eating habits this spring. No matter what their dietary restrictions, you can always offer them a great meal.

For years, restaurants around the country have been finding ways to support even the most devout customers during this season. Get inspired with these success stories, and look for new ways to engage your guests, every day of the year.


Pancake Day

You’re probably familiar with IHOP’s annual Pancake Day – the one day a year when the chain restaurant serves free pancakes, and encourages guests to donate to charity instead of paying for the menu item. You might not know that this flapjack extravaganza was originally intended to coincide with the Christian Pancake Day – a.k.a. Fat Tuesday, or Mardis Gras.

The name comes from the religious tradition of using up all the decadent ingredients in the house – including butter, sugar, flour, and anything else you might want in a pancake. While IHOP’s Pancake Day is no longer tied to Fat Tuesday (this year it will fall on March 7th, a week after Mardis Gras), the restaurant has successfully turned a religious holiday into a nationwide marketing tool.

Whether you’re operating a large chain or an independent restaurant, encouraging your guests to give to charity shows you care – about them, and about your entire community. Add in a free menu item as delicious as a stack of pancakes, and they’ll be coming back for more, long before the next holiday rolls around.


Fish Fry Days

Most Lent observers will give up eating red meat on Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In 2017, that period will run just over 6 weeks: from March 1st until April 16th. Other popular sacrifices include giving up soda or another favorite food. Many nonprofits and churches host weekly Fish Frys on Fridays to build community around the holiday. This is a great opportunity for restaurants to cater large gatherings, or host their own events.

Lenten specials work just as well at quick-service and full-service restaurants. As one Economist writer notes, “fast food” has more than one meaning at this time of year. Long John Silver’s, with it’s year-round focus on seafood, shows a spike in sales every Ash Wednesday. Marilyn Nicholson, vice president of Media and Promotions, said that the chain expects sales to increase by 75% on that day alone. That’s quite the catch of the day for seafood restaurant operators.


Options for Everyone

Lent specials don’t have to disappear on Easter Sunday. As Danielle Beurteaux wrote for QSR Magazine, “The now iconic story of the invention of McDonald’s fish sandwich is a case in point. The Filet-O-Fish was invented by Cincinnati-based McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen, who in 1962 needed a dining choice for his largely Catholic customer base. The Filet-O-Fish was a hit and is now on menus all year.”

This is always a great season for seafood sales. As guests are increasingly interested in healthy, sustainable menu items, you can use Lent as an opportunity to test-drive permanent menu items that will interest seafood aficionados all year long.