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The fish stick is going modern to fit pandemic tastes

Gorton's tries to reel in a new demographic

Gorton's fish tacos with mango salsa.
Gorton's fish tacos with mango salsa.Handout

Fish sticks: the dinnertime lifeline for harried parents everywhere. Perhaps no purveyor is more well-known around these parts than Gorton’s Seafood. Founded in 1849 in Gloucester, the friendly fisherman in the yellow raincoat is enjoying new prominence during the pandemic.

Executives say that overall sales are up 25 percent since March through July, and fish stick sales alone are up 30 percent in pounds — which translates to about 58 million more fish sticks sold than during ordinary times. Meanwhile, the company is updating its recipes for a more discriminating crowd. They have ditched minced-pollack sticks for fatter whole fillets, focusing on Alaskan pollack that’s frozen shortly after it’s caught. The result is a stretchy, almost creamy and crunchy breaded stick — I tried some, in the interest of research — with a snacky taste.

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People say, “Oh my God, this is like a mozzarella stick, but it’s way better for me,” says Chris Hussey, Gorton’s vice president of marketing. “It’s going to actually taste less fishy, more mild and fresh.”

Pre-pandemic marketing efforts focused on the sticks’ cheekiness factor, with frozen meals peddled by half-men, half-fish spokescreatures called “mer-bros” with buff chests and fish tails. An early 2020 ad campaign featured comedian Jude Flannelly asking passersby to sample fish sticks at farmers’ markets, chatting about the last time they’d tried the throwback meal. “It’s better than I remember!” marvels one enthusiastic consumer.

“We suspended that campaign because early on it became a little bit odd that you were going to talk to a stranger outside and take food from their hands” during a pandemic, Hussey says.

No longer a food of mere convenience, COVID-19 has people gravitating toward the frozen-fish aisle. And so Gorton’s is repositioning its offerings as essential components of stylish at-home meals.

“What happened in COVID is that people went to the staples in their freezer. They needed those things that they could trust, that they could rely on, that would last forever, that weren’t wasteful. And all of a sudden people were trying and eating fish sticks pretty regularly. And so where we have evolved, particularly during the COVID environment, is to say, ‘OK, you’re eating them. They’re in your freezer. You’re buying them. We know you’re buying them, because sales have gone through the roof. So what are we going to give you for inspiration to do with them?’ says Hussey.

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What indeed? So Gorton’s has pivoted, switching from nostalgia and convenience to, well, taste. Their Instagram account now focuses on fish sticks and other branded frozen fish as you’ve never seen them before, with recipes, bright backdrops, and Martha Stewart-worthy spreads: a fish burger “dinner board” with plump veggies and dips, crispy popcorn shrimp atop garlicky pasta, a panko-crusted haddock taco bar, and noodle bowls with those telltale battered fillets on top.

In other words, these are not your grandmother’s breaded missiles of witching-hour desperation.

“We were the first fish stick. We’ve been in the fish stick business since the 1950s. It would have been very simple to sit back and do nothing with it — but we want to keep growing and taking it to the next level,” says CEO Kurt Hogan.

As such, Gorton’s has also enlisted social media micro-influencers to help reel in customers, focusing on Instagram users who often post about quick, easy meals — honey walnut shrimp, salmon salad with berries — complete with artfully arranged photos and recipes hash-tagged with #simpleseafood and #stickwithfish.

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Gorton’s is also breaking out of the fish-stick niche with a Natural Catch line, featuring lighter offerings such as frozen grilled cod and salmon as customers continue to rely on frozen foods but want to abandon their initial pandemic snacking. But fish sticks, it seems, will always be the main attraction.

“People are now getting fatigued with cooking, and they need an inspiration. Are you going to have fish sticks, french fries, and ketchup, or are you going to have a taco that uses fish sticks as your protein but has avocado and lettuce and some other yummy ingredients like salsa?” Hussey asks. “All of a sudden, you feel like you’ve been transported to your favorite Mexican restaurant. And that’s where we found the magic.”


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.