Consumers say they're ready for better-for-you food, and they're asking restaurants to help them make the right choices.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2010 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy
Calorie counts posted on menu boards. Marketing campaigns touting new "light" menus. Television shows chronicling the weight-loss triumphs of celebrities and everyday people.
All of these reflect an important shift in the consumer mindset: Bombarded with statistics about skyrocketing obesity rates and the related health consequences and costs, Americans slowly are making up their minds to eat more-healthful meals-at least some of the time-and they're looking to restaurants to support their efforts. According to R&I's 2010 New American Diner study, which polled more than 2,000 adults about their dining habits and preferences, 45.8% of consumers say they've been choosing more healthful options when they eat away from home, and operators confirm guests' growing interest in better-for-you choices.
"We do see much more interest in nutrition and wellness," says Eric Ersher, founder and managing partner of Southfield, Mich.-based Zoup! Fresh Soup Company. "It's reflected in the e-mails we get from customers and the sales of certain kinds of soups," such as vegan black-bean chili.
Diners' growing interest in nutrition offers a strong incentive for operators to highlight health on their menus-a decision with which restaurants have long struggled. All too often, as soon as a dish donned a so-called "health halo," consumer interest flagged. That might be changing: In R&I's study, 86.3% of respondents said they sometimes order a menu item specifically labeled as "healthy," and 7.6% said they always order such items. Moreover, 43.7% agreed with the statement, "I'd like to see nutrition information printed on menus or menu boards." Says Jon Miller, director of research and development for Costa Mesa, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco, "You can say ‘healthy' now and it's not as dangerous."
WHAT HEALTHY MEANS TO CONSUMERS
When asked in R&I's 2010 New American Diner Study to select the top terms they associate with "healthy" food, the No. 1 choice among consumers, with 36.7% reporting an association, was "fresh ingredients rather than frozen"; "less-processed foods" were a close second with 35.7%. Ingredients offering positive health benefits (such as fiber and whole grains) and "more vegetables or fruits and less meat" followed, each cited by about one-quarter of consumers. Other language commonly connected with healthful food on menus-fewer calories, lower sodium and fewer carbohydrates-ranked surprisingly low on the list.
"Health has become segmented into many different buckets," says Miller. "We see large groups of people [on low-carb diets] who come here for protein. We have other people coming in for low-cal and low-fat foods. We also have celiacs [who avoid gluten] and people on low-sodium diets."
To small-but-vocal groups of diners such as celiacs and others with specific dietary restrictions, "healthy" foods mean those that are safe for them to eat. Their needs require foodservice operators to offer much more nutrition information up front.
"For a while, we didn't say anything about gluten," says Jill Preston, director of corporate communications for fast-casual chain Noodles & Company. But as demand for gluten-free foods grew, the Broomfield, Colo.-based concept began indicating which dishes on their menu were appropriate for those diets. In addition, the restaurant addresses diners' general concerns for healthful options by offering color-coded charts showing meal suggestions for diners watching sodium, fat, calories or carbohydrates. "We don't want anyone to veto us," Preston says.
WHO WANTS HEALTHY?
Generally speaking, consumers' interest in healthful menu items is pretty even across demographic groups-from young diners to matures, families to singles-with one or two key exceptions. In most cases, women are significantly more interested in healthful options than men. For example, half of women in R&I's study say they've been making more-healthful choices when dining away from home, compared with 41% of men who say the same. And 47% of women report that seeing nutrition information likely would change how and what they order versus 33% of men who say the same.
In several areas, Gen-Y respondents (aged 28 and under) also showed more interest than other age groups in healthful options. According to R&I's research, more than half of young diners say they want nutrition information posted on menus, more than any other age group, and 48.6% say having nutritional information available would change how they order.
Robert Lavoie, director of culinary operations for Roger Williams University, a Bon Appétit Management Co. account in Bristol, R.I., says it's likely that this generation and those that follow will come to expect healthful food options as a regular part of menus. He sees it already on campus: Six years ago, Lavoie overhauled the university's dining facility, creating more-healthful menus for students and staff by enhancing the focus on fresh vegetables and offering at least three whole-grain salads daily. "Now they're accustomed to coming in and searching out items that are more healthy," he says.
DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL?
Whether in the interest of public health or to stay ahead of legislative trends toward mandating calorie counts and banning unhealthy ingredients such as trans fats, many operators quietly are making health-focused changes to their menus before consumers demand them. At Roger Williams University, for example, macaroni and cheese is made with whole-grain pasta and chicken fingers often are baked, not fried. "[The dining hall] is a comfort zone," says Lavoie. "[A diner might think] ‘I just want fries.' Sometimes we have to be more stealthy. So I'll do sweet-potato fries; they're delicious and they're better for you. We're coaxing them along."
Making Chicken-tortilla soup is one of El Pollo Loco's best sellersmenus more healthful behind the scenes also is an important part of the agenda for San Francisco-based Pasta Pomodoro's new owners, Matt Janopaul and Girish Satya. "Knowing that consumers will often still want cream-based pasta dishes, we're now working on lighter versions," says Janopaul, CEO of the 30-unit chain.
Pasta Pomodoro's corporate chefs are experimenting with different cheeses, fresh herbs and other natural ingredients to enhance flavor without adding extra fat. One example: a medley of roasted vegetables replaces ground meat in a new vegetarian version of lasagna. "We believe that offering lighter versions of pasta as well as more vegetarian options is the next generation of modern Italian cooking," Janopaul says.
Guests at Noodles & Company can be satisfied and still watch their diets by ordering one of the recommended trios, which match a small order of noodles with a protein (such as shrimp) and a salad. "We have a lot of combinations that are 400 calories or less," Preston says. Other trios are designed specifically for diners watching fat, sodium or carbs. Still, even with the focus on these healthy options, the company isn't planning on taking its best-selling macaroni and cheese off the menu. "Sales do speak," Preston says. "Someone may want their comfort food. That's why we have both healthy and indulgent [options] on the menu."
IN THE END, IT'S ALL ABOUT FLAVOR
Health concerns are likely to have a long-term impact on menu development, yet how they ultimately will impact menus will continue to evolve and vary depending on customers' changing expectations and awareness. Through it all, whether a dish's health benefits are prominent or disguised, its success comes down to flavor.
At Pasta Pomodoro's locations, all in California, the two best-selling dishes at lunch happen to be Healthy Chicken (grilled chicken with whole-wheat fusilli, zucchini, tomato sauce and basil) and Healthy Fish (salmon, asparagus, tomato sauce and basil on top of penne).
"It's incumbent on the restaurant community to experiment with more grains, offer more vegetables," says Janopaul. "If it's flavorful and if it's based on seasonal ingredients, customers will like it."
At El Pollo Loco, a lean, brothy chicken-tortilla soup with tortilla strips and cheese on the side has been one of the chain's most-successful sellers.
"Guests are spending money; they don't want something that won't satisfy them." Miller says. "If you deliver flavor and satisfaction and health, you deliver a win-win."
TO CONSUMERS, HEALTHY IS…
When asked to rank the top descriptions they associate with healthy food, participants in R&I's New American Diner Study selected the following:
- 36.7% Fresh ingredients (rather than frozen)
- 35.7% Less-processed foods
- 25.4% Ingredients (e.g. fiber, whole grains) that offer positive benefits
- 24.1% More vegetables or fruits and less meat
- 21.7% Less fat
- 15.2% Antibiotic- and hormone-free
- 13.8% Fewer calories
- 12% Lower in sodium
- 5.2% Fewer carbs