For the past year and a half, New York City has been at the center of the menu-labeling controversy, having enacted the first legislation requiring chain restaurant operators to post caloric content on menus and menu boards.
For the most part, and despite some initial reservations, operators have complied with the law. But now, months after the shock and dismay have settled into acceptance, one restaurant chain—Houston’s —is refusing to post the same information all other chains with 15 or more stores in operation have been ordered to do.
The 30-unit, upscale casual-dining chain has said it would rather fight the law than submit to it. That stance has not only raised some eyebrows in this town, but also the ire of the city’s health department, the organization responsible for implementing the rule.
Houston’s, which long has been known for such appetizing and, no doubt, high-calorie dishes as spinach artichoke dip with tortilla chips and one of the best bacon cheeseburgers this side of the East River, claims it should be exempt from menu labeling because its restaurants operate under different names. In Manhattan, the Los Angeles-based company’s two units are now called Hillstone, after the parent company’s name, Hillstone Restaurant Group Inc., even though signage still identifies them as Houston’s stores.
The company also has varied the menu items offered at the two locations. At the unit on Park Avenue South, the menu boasts sushi rolls, while the midtown restaurant does not. And while both offer a $14 grilled artichoke appetizer, one calls it California Artichokes while the other lists it as Jumbo Artichokes.
Houston’s could be trying so hard to work around the law because it is afraid that consumers might be scared away by the high calorie counts of its menu items. But I don’t think that’s the case. The way I see it, loyal customers would continue to patronize the brand as long as the food and service remain good. In addition, several polls have found the public to be in favor of nutrition disclosure on menus, so the calorie posting would become a bonus by providing people with options, which is widely considered a good thing.
For its part, however, Hillstone intends to continue fighting the rule; it is scheduled to face New York City’s Department of Health in court Sept. 1.