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Share the Health – US Food Trends

02 August 2007
Share the Health – US Food Trends

Chain operators are still figuring out how to appeal to the fit (and not-so-fit) and fickle.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2007 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. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>

By Christine LaFave, Associate Editor

"There's such a fragmentation right now," says Janet Richardson-Barce, an associate director of marketing for Overland Park, Kan.-based Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar. "We are trying to accommodate the needs and desires of a lot of different kinds of people out there."

For many consumers, the notion of "better for you" is hazy at best. Is a mostly organic, preservative-free 1,000-calorie burrito a better or worse choice than a grilled chicken salad loaded with factory-farmed chicken and an artificially flavored reduced-fat salad dressing? While consumers wrestle with whether they want their food fresh, all-natural and full-fat or lower in fat and calories, foodservice operators face the challenge of creating appealing "healthier" items that don't break the bank.

Healthy-dining doubters note that when it comes to better-for-you foods, many customers say they want one thing and then opt for something entirely different once they're in a restaurant. This is one reason why, in Chicago-based Technomic's recent survey of 41 executives at 28 quick-service and casual-dining chains, health and nutrition ranked near the bottom of a list of operators' concerns-below growing sales/increasing profits, food safety, meeting customer demand and labor issues, and above only social responsibility.

Said one respondent: "Most restaurant customers' attitude is, 'When I go out to eat, I want what I want-don't make me feel guilty when I'm eating dinner!'" The survey, "How Major Restaurant Chains Plan Their Menus," appears in the April 2007 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

But as dining-and-nutrition topics such as trans fats and food safety-issues not associated with any one diet-continue to get attention in the media, consumers are becoming more aware of how food gets from the farm to the kitchen and from the kitchen to the table. Health-seeking diners, in particular, are increasingly knowledgeable about how food's preparation can affect its nutritional value and the health of those who consume it, and they're willing to cast a "veto vote" when dining in a group if they believe a restaurant won't have healthy-enough menu options. San Clemente, Calif.-based Sandelman & Associates, a market-research firm, finds that 43% of quick-service-restaurant customers in 2006 rated "availability of healthy/nutritious food" as extremely important in their selection of a fast-food restaurant, up from 35% in 2001.

To avoid racking up veto votes, chains offer more customization of meals and menu items. They also are launching marketing campaigns that emphasize "fresh" ingredients and preparation. Additionally, many help customers choose the items that will best meet their dietary needs by having available detailed nutrition information for a variety of menu selections. The keys to keeping and attracting health-minded customers, operators find, are choice, careful preparation and a little creative wording.

Get Fresh

How to say "healthy" without actually saying "healthy"? Many chains employ such terms as "fresh" and "flavorful" to convey a liveliness that they fear "healthy" may lack. ("Currently if you put something on the menu and say it's healthy, it's the kiss of death," said one respondent in the Technomic survey.)

Louisville, Ky.-based KFC introduced a Grilled Mexi Bowl in its Southern California locations in April; the chain says the item-grilled chicken, Mexican-style rice, jalapeÁ±o-pinto beans and pico de gallo-was developed "in response to consumers' ongoing demand for fresh, bold, full-flavored menu items." Other recent introductions in Southern California KFCs are the Grilled Snacker sandwich, the Grilled Twister wrap and a Grilled Kids Laptop Meal.

Freshness and flavor also are key themes at Irvine, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco. Promoting itself as a purveyor of "fresh, wholesome, flavorful food cooked over an open grill," the 32-year-old chain offers steamed vegetables as a side dish and allows patrons to order flame-grilled chicken skinless to reduce fat and calorie counts. In April, El Pollo Loco announced the return of BBQ Black Beans; the company had removed them from the menu in 2005 while it sought a way to remove saturated and trans fat from the recipe. The new beans have 0 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat per serving.

Go Natural

Denver-based Chipotle hangs its hat on offering natural, prepared-in-front-of-customers'-eyes food since the chain's founding in 1993. Twenty-five percent of the beans the company is purchasing this year are organic, up from about 20% in 2006 and 15% in 2005. The move is in line with Chipotle's "Food With Integrity" mission, which revolves around sourcing organic produce and naturally raised meats. All of Chipotle's pork is naturally raised-meaning that the pigs received no antibiotics and ate feed without animal byproducts-and the company asserts on its Web site that, as a result, the pork "tastes better and is better for you."

To bolster the theme, roadside billboards appeal to the "natural-is-better" sensibility. "Pork from farmers, not factories," the billboards read.

Pittsburgh-based Eat'n Park Restaurants Senior Vice President Brooks Broadhurst doesn't need numbers to convince him of the value of using locally grown and produced items. "The products simply are better," he says. "They taste better; they aren't designed to travel; they're fresher." Broadhurst says that incorporating regionally produced items into a menu demonstrates a chain's commitment to providing customers the freshest and best-tasting food possible, and to supporting the work of local farmers.

Steering clear of hard-to-define concepts such as "fresh" and "natural," Applebee's partnered with Weight Watchers to create a menu that serves diet-tracking diners hard data with each dish. Calorie, fat and fiber counts are listed for all items on the Weight Watchers menu. Additionally, for the convenience of Weight Watchers members following the program's POINTS system, each item has a POINTS value.

The association with a long-established weight-loss program-and a sort of stamp of approval on selected menu items by a company devoted to weight loss and weight maintenance-helps set Applebee's program apart, Richardson-Barce says. "It brings that immediate credibility just because it's recognizable," she says.

The Weight Watchers menu launched in May 2004, and it now features 10 items ranging from Onion Soup Au Gratin (topped with reduced-fat Cheddar cheese) to a 230-calorie-per-serving Chocolate Raspberry Layer Cake. A recent addition, Steak & Portobellos, features flame-grilled sirloin steak topped with a portobello mushroom gravy and paired with steamed vegetables and herb potatoes. The meat-and-potatoes dish adds up to 330 calories and 10 grams of fat.

"The idea that you have to sacrifice or give things up has kind of been put to rest," she says. "[Lighter fare] needs to be treated carefully, but not differently."

What about the fact that most Weight Watchers members are women? "We knew that Weight Watchers was more commonly recognized among women," Richardson-Barce concedes. But she points to interest in and feedback about the Steak & Portobellos entrée as evidence that the Weight Watchers menu's appeal extends beyond Weight Watchers members. On its own merits, the Steak & Portobellos is an attractive steak plate, she says. "The menu does extremely well at lunch," she adds.

Let Them Research Cake

Chain operators increasingly are using the Web to help patrons make more-informed menu choices. Noodles & Co., based in Broomfield, Colo., features on its Web site a menu guide that offers suggestions for diners watching calories, fat, sodium or carbohydrates. Additionally, most Noodles salads and six entrées, including House Marinara on Penne, Mushroom Stroganoff and the noodleless Sweet Chili Chicken, are available in small or regular sizes.

Seattle-based Starbucks revised its Web site in June to make smaller, lower-fat versions of many drinks the norm in terms of supplying nutrition information to consumers. Previously, clicking on the nutrition information for an Orange Mocha yielded numbers for a 16-ounce Grande drink made with whole milk and topped with whipped cream. Now, visitors who want to crunch numbers for an Orange Mocha automatically will find nutritionals for a 12-ounce Tall nonfat drink minus the whipped-cream finish. The difference is significant: The calorie count listed is reduced from 430 to 220 and fat grams are cut from 18 to 2.

Offering options for customizing and comparing menu selections online can help customers figure out ways they can enjoy their favorite foods without sabotaging their diets. Dallas-based Pizza Hut offers on its Web site a nutrition calculator that allows diners to tally up nutrition counts for pizza slices, appetizers, drinks, desserts and dipping sauces.

Diners looking for a basic portal for information about healthier choices at a variety of restaurants-chains and independents alike-have a new option as of March at HealthyDiningFinder.com. Participating restaurants pay a sliding-scale fee (based on size) to have nutrition information for a minimum of four and maximum of 10 menu items listed on the site. Items must meet several nutritional guidelines to be eligible for inclusion. Entrées, for example, can contain no more than 750 calories and 25 total grams of fat. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) worked with a San Diego-based company to develop the site.

"It's a model that works with just about any restaurant," says Erica Bohm, HealthyDiningFinder.com vice president and director of strategic partnerships. "It's not about healthy restaurants; it's about the better-for-you choices at all kinds of restaurants."

The latest developments in "healthy" are not so much about any one diet as they are about helping consumers find items that taste good right now and are better for them in the long-term. Given the move from fad-focused to fresh, "healthy" just might have a healthy future on chain menus.

Balancing Act

An animated new Web site featuring trees of broccoli and penne noodles flying kites conveys a clear sense of freshness and fun for Broomfield, Colo.'s Noodles & Co. In conjunction with the launch of the redesigned noodles.com, Noodles & Co. announced the debut of the Good Balance educational program.

The program aims to help customers easily find lower-calorie, lower-fat, lower-carb and lower-sodium meal options at Noodles via in-store brochures and menu recommendations posted in a "For Your Health" section of the Web site.

"Our customers have kind of been asking us for a little more information on our dishes," says Krista Koranda, Noodles spokesperson. With Good Balance, "We've done the work for our customers," Koranda says.

Kids Count Too

What's good for the goose is good for the gosling: In response to concerns about childhood obesity, more chain restaurants have opted to include more-healthful options on kids' menus, too.

  • Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's International Corp. lets kids select a turkey-and-cheese or ham-and-cheese sandwich and pair it with Mandarin oranges or yogurt with granola.
  • At Nashville, Tenn.-based O'Charley's, pasta marinara recently joined entrées such as mini corn dogs and bite-size shrimp on the kids' menu. Side options include broccoli, a fruit cup and Baked Cheetos.
  • The Fresh Fit for Kids meal at Milford, Conn.-based Subway restaurants features a 4-inch sub, 1% low-fat milk or apple juice, and apple slices or raisins.
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