Cajun seafood may not be a new cuisine, but it's now a fast-growing, national trend with new restaurants opening at a blistering pace.
"The Cajun seafood trend is a concept that's come of age," said Bill Resk, president and COO of New York-based Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood Restaurant and Bar.
As one of the largest Cajun seafood brands currently expanding across the United States, Hook & Reel has 74 locations across 23 states. Resk estimates they will hit 100 locations by the end of the year.
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"We're now seeing exponential growth in this market . . . and that means the concept is working where we've opened and with different demographics," he said. "This tells me that people are really enjoying this [Cajun seafood] experience, especially those who've never had it before."
For the uninitiated, Cajun seafood dishes, especially seafood boils, can be filled with a variety of seafood including snow crab legs, crawfish, clams, mussels, and shrimp served with either mild, medium, or spicy sauces.
"Eating a seafood boil is more than a meal, it's an experience," Resk said. "It's colorful, it's spicy, it's vibrant, it elicits all the senses. When that boil arrives, and you pop the bag, mix the seafood in, mix the spice in there, it becomes a shared, family experience."
And while Hook & Reel may be the largest, Resk estimates there are at least 30 other Cajun seafood brands in the space both regionally and nationally.
Crab Du Jour is another national chain that, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal, operates more than 30 locations across 15 states including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina. Texas-based Boiling Crab has 12 locations across Texas, California, and Florida; while Colorado-based Lost Cajun has 26 locations.
Storming Crab seafood is at 24 locations in 13 states with more slated to open soon. Other Cajun seafood players include Sexy Crab, Crafty Crab, Ben's Crab, and Mr. & Mrs. Crab, with about 21 locations in the Southeast.
Cajun cooking started out in the bayous of southern Louisiana, brought over by the French settlers who migrated there from Canada and used savory blends of spices including black and cayenne pepper to season seafood and stews.
When it comes to the Cajun seafood trend, some trace its origins to the southeast Asian immigrants who resettled in the United States in the late '70s. This turned bare-bones Louisiana crayfish restaurants into social hubs, perfect for gathering over peeling crab and a beer.
But Resk sees its appeal as more broad, adding that "the demographics for this cuisine vary across the country," and that once people are introduced to Cajun seafood, they respond "well to it." According to him, Hook & Reel is one of the first Cajun seafood brands to venture into the Midwest successfully.
"People are responding, even out there," he said, noting that the West can be challenging regarding introductions of new cuisines. "There is definitely something about the communal experience of Cajun seafood. People have a real desire for it."