Panera Bread offers a seasonal seafood pasta dish, the Gemelli Primavera with shrimp.

CHICAGO — Seafood may be the next frontier in fast-casual, with emerging brands specializing in fresh and affordable options poised to make a splash. Nearly three-fourths of consumers who ordered more seafood entrees over the past two years said they did so to eat more healthfully, according to a new report from Technomic, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm.

Consumers perceive seafood, vegetarian and vegan dishes as more healthful than beef, pork and poultry items, and about half of consumers surveyed indicated these options are as satisfying as meals with meat. Forty-five per cent of younger consumers and 30% of older consumers who eat vegetarian or vegan entrees are more likely to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. With millennials representing a great proportion of food service customers, seafood and vegetarian menu innovation has become more important than ever, Technomic said.

“Health will continue to drive the seafood and vegetarian menu mix, and it can be leveraged both to spur interest in these options and to benefit the concept as a whole, by broadening appeal, reducing the ‘veto vote’ and creating a health halo,” said Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights for Technomic.

Sixty-two per cent of consumers reported eating meals without beef, pork, chicken or turkey at least once a week, and 69% of consumers said they eat a seafood entree at least once every 90 days. The top fish dish at leading restaurant chains is salmon, but cod is quickly growing on both limited- and full-service menus, according to Technomic.

Roughly half of consumers said they would like restaurants to offer a wider variety of seafood entrees and vegetarian or vegan entrees. The most preferred seafood entrees, according to Technomic, are pasta dishes (46%), rice dishes (42%) and Asian entrees (38%). Popular vegetarian or vegan items are mixed vegetables (66%), pasta dishes (63%) and Asian entrees (62%). The fastest growing entree flavors at leading restaurant chains for seafood are mango, cilantro and sesame, and for vegetarian and vegan dishes are feta, cilantro and pesto.

“These options also provide a point of differentiation that younger consumers look for as inventive, yet satisfying vegetarian and seafood items featuring on-trend ingredients to create a contemporary, unique and better-for-you positioning,” Ms. Weikel said.

Only 6% of seafood entrees on menus in the United States are found in fast-casual restaurants, Technomic said. Such chains as Pret A Manger, Au Bon Pain and Panera Bread have introduced items with shrimp or lobster in the past year. Fast-casual restaurants that specialize in customizable dishes include Da Lobsta in Chicago, My Ceviche in Miami, and Seasalt Fish Grill and Slapfish in California.

“Currently, seafood is mostly the province of casual-dining chains, and with few limited-service brands able to approach the size of Long John Silver’s and Captain D’s, the white space in between those segments leaves plenty of room for young fast-casual restaurants to develop quickly in urban, affluent areas,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president for Technomic. “Securing a supply of fresh fish and managing price points are certainly challenges for limited-service seafood brands, but this type of cuisine lets new chains leverage many attributes people love about fast casual, including perceptions of greater ingredient quality, bold flavors and customization.”