SAN FRANCISCO Twenty-two unit Specialty's Cafe & Bakery, based here, tried the "do-it-yourself" approach to nutritional analysis of menu items using desktop computer software about three years ago. Things did not turn out well, acknowledged Dawn Saxton, co-founder and vice president of product development.
"We saw the writing on the wall" about future government mandates to disclose calories and other nutritional information for menu items, Saxton said of Specialty's motivation to try food analysis. From the start, she said, her company had problems integrating the analytical software's data with other business applications and began tallying significant expenses beyond the price of the program in the form of a worker needed to input recipe information.
The bottom line about the previous endeavor, said the restaurateur, was that after spending a considerable amount of time and about $5,000 for labor, "the only final analysis we had gotten was about the salads" and even that data "had a lot of misinformation."
Today, Specialty's is racing to comply with menu disclosure regulations in multiple markets in which it operates, including San Francisco and King County in Washington, and, in doing so, it is spending significantly more — $20,000-$25,000 in all — than it did on its previous stab at nutrition analysis. The difference between the current and past project: Saxton said she couldn't be happier with the results she is achieving using the Web-based software and services of MenuCalc, a division of FoodCalc LLC of San Mateo, Calif.
FoodCalc, through another division, LabelCalc, for several years has provided food manufacturers and processors with nutritional analysis tools and services that help them comply with U.S. Food & Drug Administration product labeling guidelines. It recently began supporting operators – first under the name CookedApple before settling on the more descriptive MenuCalc – and is now working with six restaurant groups with from one to 75 units, said founder Lucy Needham.
Among current MenuCalc users are independent Cavalli Pizza of Irving, Texas, and Asian Chao, the 39-unit mall and college food court concept from Longwood, Fla.-based Food Systems Unlimited Inc.
"I can't say enough nice things about it," Saxton said of the service she receives using MenuCalc software with assistance from Needham and her team, including registered dietician Alyson Mar.
Some services do all the nutrition analysis work for restaurant companies, while others sell to operators who want to tackle the project themselves specialty software for hundreds or thousands of dollars and provide or rent access to large databases of ingredient nutrition information.
MenuCalc users can pay the San Mateo company to do the analytical work for them at a rate that is competitive with the industry standard of $100-$150 per menu item, the company said, adding that qualified users may pay less. Operators also have the option to subscribe to MenuCalc's online software platform that automates nutrition analysis for recipes entered by such subscribers, who are aided in data entry by access to a large database of ingredients-nutrition information. The company said subscriptions can run as low as $3,000.
Under a third hybrid option — the one chosen by Specialty's Cafe & Bakery — MenuCalc performs the initial analysis of all menu items at a set, per-item rate. At the same time, these clients may enroll in a follow-up subscription program at a nominal fee to gain unlimited access to the MenuCalc software and database, and reporting functions, to analyze new foods from scratch or modify items already tackled by MenuCalc.
Saxton said the hybrid approach will permit her company to cost-effectively leverage the initial analytical work done by MenuCalc and, through interaction with Needham's team, is preparing Specialty's employees for solo analytical work in the future.
"They are holding our feet to the fire," the restaurateur said of MenuCalc's imposed discipline related to such things as standardizing recipe measures — non-rounded versus rounded tablespoons, etc., — and preparation techniques, so that nutrition analysis is meaningful and conforms to law. "We're a from-scratch bakery, and a lot of variation [in preparation] can occur because of human touches," Saxton said of why such reminders are helpful and, ultimately, will only improve operations.
Saxton said "the beauty" of MenuCalc is that "it is Web-based and hosted," meaning it is "software I don't have to load" and "something I don't have to own."
MenuCalc, with a wizard-style interface that walks users through the process, also alerts them whenever their recipes meet FDA guidelines for claims such as "low-sodium" or "low-fat." And, said Saxton, MenuCalc human resources are quick to point out if a simple ingredient substitution or change in portion size may yield the right to make such a claim or otherwise reflect a more nutritious offering.
Saxton said she considers it a plus that MenuCalc support uses the GoogleDocs online-file sharing and collaboration system for communicating project notes and logging progress. This approach, she said, virtually eliminates the mountain of e-mail and duplicate documentation that might normally flow from such collaboration.
The program has a myriad of drop-down menus for fast selection from among options. It is dynamic in that it automatically recalculates nutrition data to reflect any changes in ingredients, ingredient measure, cooking technique or portion size. Foods that might be used in a variety of applications, such as condiments, sauces and dressings, can be analyzed and saved as unique "ingredients" to be easily recalled for use in future recipes.
Saxton said she believes Specialty's now has the analysis part of nutrition disclosure under control and will, to simplify things, provide systemwide the data required by the strictest of the measures under which the chain operates. But she pointed out that her group nevertheless still is being challenged to fully understand the disclosure requirements and meet unique presentation demands of some of the disclosure laws, such as printing specifications that may render menu boards indecipherably cluttered or limit the number of menu items that can be displayed on such boards.
The operator added that she is holding off for as long as possible the decision on how to disclose the information generated using MenuCalc, because the data required may change depending on whether California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs into law a statewide measure now on his desk or if Congress acts on newly proposed nationwide nutrition disclosure regulation.