Restaurant rationing

by Eric Schroeder
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Consumers pushing themselves away from restaurant tables full but with still heaping piles of food on their plates may become less common in 2008 if certain trends play out as expected, according to several research tracking firms. Portion control, which has been a hit in the snack food sector through the widespread introduction of 100-calorie packs, now is making its way into food service.

Restaurant consultant Joseph Baum and Michael Whiteman Co. identified "smaller portions" as their No. 10 dining trend in 2008, while the National Restaurant Association (N.R.A.) identified bite-size desserts (No. 1) and "small plates" (No. 4) as areas of interest heading into the new year.

Annika Stensson, manager of media relations with the N.R.A., said the growing trend toward portion control in food service reflects consumers’ interest in health and nutrition, but also is tied to consumer spending.

"If people have less disposable income due to high gas prices and interest rates, for example, they are likely to cut back on restaurant spending as well," Ms. Stensson said. "Offering smaller portions for a smaller price may be beneficial to keep customers coming in the door. But, health and wellness is the main reason for this trend.

"While restaurants have offered healthful items and different portion sizes, there is more emphasis on and awareness of that these days."

In order for food service operators to be successful offering smaller portions there must be a balance between price and value, Ms. Stensson said, citing a consumer base that is more value-conscious than ever.

"If they perceive they do not get enough on their plate for what they spend, they may not come back (or come in the first place)," she said.

Ms. Stensson identified a couple of ways restaurants may satisfy demand without dramatically overhauling menus. She said some restaurants may have servers suggest appetizers or lunch sizes as options for diners, while others may recommend diners share dishes with their dining companions. Another alternative may be to encourage diners to take half of the meal home to eat the next day.

"A lot of this trend comes down to consumers customizing their meal experience," she said.

Forecasting the lasting impact of portion control in food service, Ms. Stensson said the trend "is not likely to fade any time soon."

"Savvy operators have several options to help diners eat smart, but still get the value and food they want," she said. "So in short, options for portion sizes are part of a much larger trend that can be highlighted in a variety of ways."

Survey details challenges of eating right

The Hartman Group, Inc., Bellevue, Wash., put its finger on the pulse of the growing trend with its report this past June titled "Portion Control from a Consumer Perspective." The survey was based on responses given on-line by 1,043 American consumers.

Consistent with findings from a study it conducted in 2004, the Hartman Group in its most recent survey found portion control to be one of the most difficult behaviors to practice during a wide range of meal occasions, most particularly when dining out.

"If there is one constant theme uniting all of our research on consumer eating behavior away from home, it is this: Any interest in trying to adhere to weight management practices by eating ‘better’ or in a more nutritionally sound manner all but disappear once the consumer leaves the confines of the household or workplace," the Hartman Group said.

One reason for the difficulty is lack of available nutrition information when selecting an appropriate portion size. According to the Hartman Group, only 32% of Americans found provided information on menus or menu boards to be "very" or "fairly" useful in selecting a portion size.

While consumers surveyed said they felt restaurant chains were trying to help by offering generous portions, 84% said they would prefer restaurants offer a variety of portion sizes for each entrée, according to the Hartman Group.

The problem of portion control for the most part resides in casual restaurants, such as Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday and Outback Steakhouse, according to the survey. Forty-seven per cent of consumers said typical portion sizes at casual restaurants were "too large for them," compared with 18% in fast food, 17% in sandwich shops and 15% in supermarket delis and food courts.

Providing some indication that times are changing, though, was the finding that 19% of consumers think chef-managed or fine dining restaurants have reduced the size of their standard portions, versus 17% of consumers who felt sizes have increased.

From a gender perspective, the Hartman Group survey identified women as the more likely group to emphasize portion control. Women agreed more strongly than men that restaurant portions are often big enough for two people and fast-food portions are larger than most. There also was evidence women are more willing than men to pay more for portion-controlled products.

On the menu

When it comes to portion control, prepare for a snack attack. That was the message delivered by Mintel Menu Insights, a national restaurant tracking service. In its "Eight for ’08" menu trends released earlier this month Mintel tagged smaller portions as the No. 2 trend to watch in the coming year.

While the tracking service identified mini-burgers and wraps as items igniting the portion-control movement in late 2007, more "mini" favorite foods are expected to dominate restaurant menus in the coming months.

Products such as Starbucks "Skinny" platform, The Cheesecake Factory’s "Weight Management Salads," Subway’s "Fresh Fit Meal," and T.G.I. Friday’s "Right Portion, Right Price" entrees are just several of the items addressing the portion-control trend, said Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel Menu Insights and a registered dietician. Certain Cheesecake Factory locations also offer "lunch portions" of pasta until late afternoon.

"There is definitely a shift toward smaller plates," Ms. Caranfa said. She said a number of restaurants recognize portions are too big and have taken steps to bring them back in line with sizes that at least have the appearance of being healthy.

"Smaller portions are a step in the right direction, but there is a disconnect sometimes" she said. "Some consumers say they want healthy but don’t necessarily order that way. (Portion control) is a step in the right direction because at least it’s a smaller portion of what may be an unhealthy food."

Ms. Caranfa also pointed out portion sizes in some cases have become so large that if they were cut back consumers may not even notice. She added it is unlikely sizes would be reduced so much as to leave diners feeling unsatisfied.

From a dietician’s perspective, Ms. Caranfa said portion control — along with all other diet trends — have generated a positive message.

"It’s really good p.r. for nutrition that restaurants feel portion control plays a role in healthy eating," she said. "It sends out a good message that portion control is important for implementing a healthier diet."

Portion control put into practice

Among the restaurants adopting a significant portion control strategy is T.G.I. Friday’s, a Carrollton, Texas-based restaurant chain owned by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide Inc. In March 2007, T.G.I. Friday’s became the first restaurant chain in the casual dining sector to offer a variety of smaller portion entrees at lower prices all day, every day with its "Right Portion, Right Price" menu.

Nearly a year into the program, the company couldn’t be happier with the results.

"The sales of the ‘Right Portion, Right Price’ entrees have exceeded our expectations, and we consider the initiative very successful," said Amy Freshwater, vice-president of communication and public relations for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. "The ‘Right Portion, Right Price’ menu has attracted a whole different group of guests to Friday’s. People are now excited about Friday’s who perhaps haven’t been excited about Friday’s for a long time."

Ms. Freshwater said the initiative was born of consumer demand for smaller portions, citing surveys from Restaurants & Institutions magazine and Harris Interactive that have shown more than half of Americans would prefer more reasonably-sized food options.

"The key to ‘Right Portion, Right Price’ is choice," she said. "Plus, if you choose an entrée from the ‘Right Portion, Right Price’ menu, you’re not going to walk away hungry."

The menu includes 10 entrees, the same number as what was introduced in March, Ms. Freshwater said, but the restaurant has expanded the smaller portions concept to its dessert menu, recently adding Mini Dessert shots.

Being the first to introduce such an ambitious program has not been without its challenges, Ms. Freshwater said, and the restaurant has been careful not to overwhelm diners with too many changes.

"It was a little scary in the beginning, but we always feel listening to the guest is worth the risk," she said. "‘Right Portion, Right Price’ is about choices, but remember, we haven’t reduced all portion sizes. If you want to indulge with a full rack of ribs or a steak and shrimp combo, you still have that choice. All of your favorites are still here."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, January 22, 2008, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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