Rainbow trout, long a favorite of fish connoisseurs, has begun swimming a little closer to the surface of consumer consciousness, says Peter Fritsch, president of Palmyra, Wisconsin-based Rushing Waters Fisheries.

“Rainbow trout has always been the smaller niche stepsister to salmon,” Fritsch says. “I think what’s changed in my 22 years here is that retailers are now taking time to call out the trout.”

With that higher profile has come increased interest in the state or region the trout comes from and how it’s raised, Fritsch says.
“For a long time it was just ‘Rainbow Trout USA,’” he says. “The customer is more educated now. They’re making responsible choices, they feel good about ‘USA Trout,’ but now they want to know what farm it’s from, and whether it’s indoors, flow-through — I think they want a little bit more of a story.”

That “older stepsister,” salmon, has led the way in these efforts, Fritsch says. The selling point for salmon used to be “farm raised in Norway” (or Chile, or Canada). Salmon producers and their retail partners began to see the value in narrowing the scope — not just Norway but the particular farm in Norway. That’s where the U.S. trout industry has now arrived, he says.

“People love knowing what state their trout is from,” he says. “We’re in Wisconsin, so we have the Wisconsin (state) shape on almost all of our packaging. People like Wisconsin. In our demographic, the Upper Midwest, Wisconsin is known for clean water, lots of trees.”

Once location became more important to consumers, they realized they had other questions, Fritsch says: Is your fish chemical-free? Is it all-natural? Rushing Waters is as close to organic as it’s possible to be without actually being organic, Fritsch says. Rushing Waters is one of just two trout fisheries in the U.S. that’s earned Whole Foods Market certification for its commitment to natural processes.

Rising demand

Since Fritsch entered the trout business more than two decades ago, he says he’s never been able to keep up with demand. And that demand has been rising at an even faster clip in recent years.

“I think tilapia is on a bit of a decline right now and demand for trout is going up,” he says. “I know some good tilapia producers, but I think that when a lot of people start looking domestically and locally, they realize, ‘I can buy a trout from Wisconsin or another state.’ I feel good about that.”

Taste also plays a big role in consumers’ decision to buy trout, Fritsch says. When he demos Rushing Waters products in grocery stores, consumers are consistently surprised — and reminded of something from their past they may have forgotten.

And that memory, he says, is often enhanced by changes in trout farming that have occurred since many of those consumers last tried it. “They have this like flashback. And they maybe had it 20 years ago when feeds, practices weren’t as good and it had an off flavor or something,” he says. “We’ve come a long ways, with super awesome diets, cleaner water, chemical free. Trout never tasted as good as it does today. Then, once they try it again, they keep buying it.”

A significant amount of trout at retail is sold through impulse sales, Fritsch says. “Nobody goes to the store saying, ‘I gotta go get some trout.’ They’re going to get milk, eggs, bread. You walk by the counter window shopping, then see a sign that says, ‘Rushing Waters, Wisconsin, all-natural trout,’ and you think, ‘Wow, I’ll take it.’”

The increase in demand for U.S. trout, Fritsch says, can be seen in the proliferation of trout farms. “We have farms across the country, so it’s not just here, it’s kind of everywhere,” he says. “That’s driving trout sales. It’s kind of a homeland favorite. We’re not bringing in a lot from overseas. And I think there are farms out there that are starting to play smarter to the market, and the market is reacting because consumers are making better choices.”

A fresh advantage

Packaging options on fresh trout are limited, Fritsch says. Most ship in 5 lb bags, and consumers typically don’t see any packaging. But companies like Rushing Waters can still use packaging can strengthen the bond with their retail partners. “We list the attributes, so before the department manager rips it open and puts it in the full-service counter, he sees that it was grown in Wisconsin in artisanal water, that it’s all-natural, chemical-free from egg to harvest. And we put the date right on the package.”

Adding that time element gives Rushing Waters a chance to show off. For a lot of the company’s customers, fish is delivered within 48 hours of being harvested.

“We still sell quite a bit of head-on, and it has a nice, clear, moist, good-looking eye that looks like it’s staring at you, instead of being old and foggy. That’s what going to sell the customer. What the customer sees is what Mother Nature gave that trout. It’s one of the freshest fish in the counter.”

The bulk of Rushing Waters’ retail business is fillets, with boneless head-on making up most of the balance. “We still do some of the old dressed cut, but we do a lot more boneless,” Fritsch says. “The average consumer wants boneless. My wife, for example: she gets a bone in her fish, she’s done.”