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Earlier this year, an unlikely food product began making waves on TikTok: tinned fish. This storecupboard staple saw its popularity rise as the hashtag #tinnedfishdatenight took off on the platform.
Why the boom in popularity? It could be down to the sheer variety of the types of tinned fish now available, which spans well beyond tuna – from stuffed squid in ink to smoked oysters. Or it could be the benefits of a long shelf life and often lower price point, or even the aesthetics of the tins themselves, which often feature retro heritage labels or stunning illustrations.
As John Shepherd, MD of fine food shop Partridges, tells us, “Tinned fish is emerging from the shadows of the larder into modern cuisine, it appears. It is tasty, versatile, easy to prepare, nutritious, with a wide range of alternatives available and a long shelf life too. What’s not to like?”
Whatever the reason, in today’s cost-of-living crisis, they’ve become an affordable luxury for a wide range of consumers.
The obsession with all things served sharing-style on platters is at least partly behind the rise of the humble tinned fish. The TikTok hashtag is full of wooden boards topped with artfully displayed tins, much like a charcuterie platter or cheeseboard.
Fine food retailers can make the most of this by thinking carefully about how to place and merchandise their tinned fish products. “Tinned fish has often been hidden away on lower shelves or obscure corners, but it should be displayed as prominently as possible as it is one of the ‘add on, why not buys’ that shopkeepers appreciate,” John advises. “Many people also buy it in larger quantities than just the one tin.”
Appealing to customers’ visual senses applies to the product itself as well. A recent report from Mintel said the pandemic played a role in shifting Generation Z’s mindset towards material items. “Aesthetically pleasing items are no longer just being designed for capturing a perfect Instagram image, but rather to bring personal joy,” it said. Mintel pointed to the “extreme popularity” of the brand Fishwife in the US, which, being “known for its extremely colourful and exuberant design, has gained massive popularity with Gen Z despite being sold for $10 a tin (compared to store brand tinned fish that can cost as little as $2.50 a tin). The popularity of tinned fish on TikTok is grounded in a budget-friendly mindset and Fishwives adds a premium touch to an otherwise budget-friendly dish. Across both generations, aesthetic value is not a fad, but a new standard in the overall purchase decision,” it concluded.
With many varieties available, whittling down to the best tinned fish picks for your shelves can be a challenge.
John at Partridges says white tuna is his best-selling variety, while Patrick Martinez, CEO of The Tinned Fish Market, predicts shellfish will be the next big thing. “Squid, scallops, calamari, octopus. My favourite tin at the moment are chipirones (small squid) in ink, the ones that come from Galicia (Spain) are firm but very tender and the sauce does not overpower the fish. Goes great with some bread on the side!”
For retailers, he suggests stocking a healthy mix of known and loved fish as well as something a bit different. “You want to have the classics (sardines and mackerel in olive oil, pole and line tuna, anchovies) recipes that use some familiar flavours (smoked sardines, mackerel with mustard) something that really reminds you of the sea (mussels or scallops) something from the Scandinavian new cuisine (salmon, trout or herring) and something for an occasion (smoked oysters),” he says.
Many popular brands boast Mediterranean heritage, from Ortiz, a Spanish brand known for its bold yellow tin that has long been a popular pick for delis to Nuri’s artisanal sardines, Pepus’ squid or Olasagasti’s traditional pole and line tuna.
“We try to stock quality tinned fish from smaller artisan producers, sustainably sourced wherever possible and with creative packaging which adds to the whole offer,” John said.
Why not look a bit closer to home, too? Restaurateur Mitch Tonks’ Rockfish brand offers preserved, British-caught seafood. “We were the first to can British fish at this level, and when people discover the quality they love it,” he tells Speciality Food. “For me, tinned fish is about the quality of the fish that goes in the tin, as we are on the quayside we buy really great stuff straight from the boats.”
His top picks for retailers’ shelves? “Sardines are the big seller, but surprisingly cuttlefish is not far behind,” he says.
Whether your customers are tinned fish converts or need a little convincing, this is a product retailers can really get behind by selling the health and sustainability benefits.
“[Tinned fish is] really good for you. It’s quick, eat it from the tin, or use it in a number of recipes from salads to curries,” Mitch says.
It’s a sustainable option, too, as Patrick explains. Tinned fish boasts “almost no waste, long shelf life and can be stored at room temperature. It’s convenient – you can make a meal in seconds. It’s social media-friendly. It’s super healthy and pairs well with vegetables or with a glass of wine. We all want to eat well but don’t always have the time to cook.”
It also has a broad appeal, Patrick says, blending the “old-fashioned, cheap staple” image with the “trendy, sophisticated, Millennial” vibe.
And now, it’s this product’s time to shine. “I think it’s just been unloved for so long,” Mitch says. “It sits on the cheap shelves in supermarkets, but we have slowly discovered how good it is from travels, and it’s catching on here in the UK.”