Calorie conscious menus
March 16, 2010
by Allison Sebolt
With more states considering mandating calorie counts on menus, many restaurant chains are voluntarily devoting special sections of their menus nationwide to market items that meet specific calorie counts.
Subway, Milford, Conn., started voluntarily advertising some of the nutritional content of its meals by showing which sandwiches have 6 grams of fat or less, and this has been met with great success.
“‘Subway’s’ ‘live fresh’ tag line and philosophy has given the consumer a perception of them as a very healthy place to eat food,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president with Technomic Information Services, Chicago. “They sort of happened into it. They didn’t come out as a healthy player. They became a player, and they did it by promoting the healthfulness of their existing product rather than trying to change their product to be healthier.”
Following in the example of Subway, Applebee’s International, Inc., Lenexa, Kas., now has its “Unbelievably Great Tasting and Under 550 Calories” menu.
“We know our guests want choices, including lower-calorie entrees, but they still want meals full of flavor,” said Mike Archer, president of Applebee’s Services, Inc. “We’ve created a menu that doesn’t compromise. It has all of the taste with none of the trade-offs.”
Overall, items on such calorie-specific menus generally consist of soups, salads and seafood. The Applebee’s menu includes options such as Grilled Shrimp and Island Rice, Asian Crunch Salad, Grilled Dijon Chicken and Portobellos, Asiago Peppercorn Steak, and Spicy Shrimp Diavolo.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, a unit of Yum! Brands, Inc., Louisville, Ky., recently made a limited time offering of a 395-calorie Kentucky Grilled Chicken meal for $3.95. The company made the offering to show a meal from KFC could contain fewer than 400 calories. It is also a part of the company’s efforts to showcase its grilled options, and the company more recently promoted its Fiery Grilled Wings.
Corner Bakery Cafe, Dallas, said its “100 under 600” program has been very successful.
“Our Corner Combos are our most popular menu items,” said Diana Hovey, senior vice-president of marketing. “A large percentage of our guests visit us several times a week and look for ways to fit their cravings into a reasonable diet and lifestyle. As we began to share the list of the many different made-to-order combinations they could enjoy for under 600 calories, we found our guests were amazed there were well over 100 different Corner Combos that satisfied their cravings without forgoing their diets.”
Ms. Hovey said the program allowed guests to see how some of their favorite menu items fit into a reasonable diet and the items weren’t specially modified for the menu.
“100 Under 600 is part of Corner Bakery Cafe’s ongoing menu offering,” Ms. Hovey said. “Guests can still get the details in our cafes and on our web site to help them choose a Corner Combo that fits their diet and still satisfies their cravings. As new products are introduced to our menu, we will look to update the list of 100 Under 600 to include new options. The list actually is significantly over 100 items and will evolve as our menu is constantly evolving.”
Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst with The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., said when so many states are already mandating calorie counts on menus many chains feel they might as well do it nationally as the companies don’t want to have to produce two different menus. She said there is going to be more regulation down the road in this area, so chains might as well adhere to it now.
Ms. Riggs said in a recent study consumers said part of the reason they are eating out less at dinner has to do with wanting to control portion size, calories and fat in addition to the cost issue of eating out versus at home. Therefore, these menus make sense for such consumers. She said while not every consumer is looking for such menus, restaurants need to have them for those who are.
Ms. Riggs also said there have been some restaurants that have listed their entire nutrition information and it backfired as consumers did not want to know that much about what they were eating. So restaurants may want to carefully consider how much information they provide.
“The fact we are seeing these calorie menus at both Applebee’s and Corner Bakery is a good indicator this is what consumers want,” Mr. Tristano said. “They want an alternative that tastes good, they want to feel better and they want to know they are not eating 1,000 calories.”
But Mr. Tristano said these menus are only for a limited group of consumers who desire healthier alternatives.
“The need for having healthy alternatives on every menu is important, but I don’t see that we are going to have a number of successful restaurants that are focusing on healthy food items,” Mr. Tristano said.
He said while people are driven toward eating better, restaurant operators still have to deliver on taste and flavor to bring people back. In addition, he said there are restaurants such as Heart Attack Grill in the Phoenix area that, as its name suggests, markets its items based on the fact they are not as healthy as other restaurant offerings.
Mr. Tristano said there has been a trend to try to reduce sodium on the menus at restaurants, with advocacy groups targeting Denny’s for being one of the highest-sodium menus on the market. He said consumers are even focusing a little more on low sodium than low calorie.
“Most restaurants will spotlight the items that are already healthier by ingredient,” Mr. Tristano said. “There will be chains that do a nice job on focusing on healthy foods, natural, organic, and just better-for-you. Those chains will market to those consumers who will pay for it and will enjoy that flavor. Overall, we are still going to see more burgers and more french fries being consumed than most other products.”