Technology feeds nutrition info hunger, benefits business, restaurateurs say

Technology feeds nutrition info hunger, benefits business, restaurateurs say

News

Attempting to satisfy the increasingly strong craving for nutrition information among consumers and demands by advocacy groups and regulators for dietary "full disclosure," restaurant operators are enlisting or fine-tuning in-store technologies to bolster relations with both crowds, with some reporting higher sales as a result.

Some restaurants, including two franchised San Diego units of Mississauga, Ontario-based pita sandwich chain Extreme Pita, are conveying such information through receipts issued at the point of sale. Other operators, including Boston-based bakery-cafe operator Au Bon Pain, and Needham, Mass.-based Fresh City, are using nutrition kiosks for this purpose.

Despite such actions by restaurateurs, some jurisdictions are not yet ready to accept new technology in the place of adding written nutrition information to menu boards, printed menus and food tags so that consumers easily can see the nutrition metrics of items during the ordering process. Along those lines, New York City officials have denied Au Bon Pain's request to waive the Big Apple's new menu board requirements because the chain's in-store computer kiosks provide more comprehensive health-related data than is required by the rule.

Many operators contend that adding nutrition information to menu boards, printed menus and food tags will result in hard-to-manage and unsightly and possibly confusing menus that do nothing to address the final form that foods might take once guests order them altered to their liking, whether that's without cheese or with extra mayonnaise.

On the receipt front, the San Diego Extreme Pita stores have deployed the Nutricate Receipt system from Nutricate Corp. of Santa Barbara, Calif. Operator Brett Weiss, the Extreme Pita area developer for San Diego County, also plans to use the system in his new store in the Miranda Valley area of San Diego, which is scheduled to open in the second quarter. Seven franchised Extreme Pita stores in Arizona and three in Canada also are slated to deploy the system beginning in early February, Extreme Pita officials said.

Restaurateur Jay Ferro, Nutricate's chief executive and part owner of Santa Barbara-based Silvergreens, a fast-casual concept, developed the receipt technology. He indicated that the system was inspired by the growing number of customer requests for the nutritional breakdown of menu items at Silvergreens.

Ferro decided that the use of brochures and posters detailing the nutritive value of each item would be helpful in this regard but not of maximum value, because Silvergreens' customers tend to personalize their food with different ingredients. In designing the system, he enlisted a team of nutrition professionals to analyze Silvergreens' menu and calculate the nutritional information for each of more than 400 ingredients. Sales rose by 25 percent in the year following the release of the dietary information and installation of the reporting technology, the restaurateur and tech vendor said.

Meanwhile, Weiss said his motive in deploying the system last September was not only to share information with consumers but also to distinguish his operation from others in the area. "Some use pre-printed labels, but those labels don't tell the whole story," he said. "People want to know, for example, what will happen 'content-wise' if they remove a slice of cheese from a sandwich, leave off the sauce or order a double portion of meat. And although Web-based tools are very useful for this purpose, not everyone thinks to look information up before they go to the restaurant."

Implementation of the technology required that Weiss provide to the vendor information about the content of his menu offerings and the volume of each ingredient contained therein. Once this data was analyzed — a step that took several weeks — Nutricate programmed the software for Extreme Pita. To maximize the marketing potential of every receipt issued and add value for customers, the operator also opted to specify that the software be configured to include messages in the form of questions, such as, "Did you know that if you substitute salsa for chipotle mayonnaise on your sandwich, you'll save 4 grams of fat?" Coupon offers, such as "buy one, get one free," were included as well.

Both the messaging and coupon capabilities are considered a standard part of the system package. Any changes made to reflect new products and messaging are conveyed to the vendor via its website.

Nutricate clients are responsible for providing the technology firm with recipe ingredient nutrition information and portion-size specifications tied to their menus. They can hire Nutricate to generate that data, pay another third-party service, draw on data compiled by their franchisor, if any are available, or do their own analysis using specialized software.

Nutricate said it charges from $25 to $100 per menu item analyzed to generate nutritional information, depending on the number of items being analyzed and their complexity.

Reports by Nation's Restaurant News in mid 2005 indicated that some restaurateurs then were paying from $30 to $80 per dish for computer analysis relying on manufacturers' reported nutrition values for ingredients or those generated by third-parties. Others were paying as much as $600 per item for chemical analysis of a prepared food.

Earlier NRN reports indicated that restaurant companies handling nutritional analysis in-house using recipe programs or analytical applications of varying sophistication spent from $200 to several thousand dollars for software, alone; in addition to covering labor costs, such do-it-yourselfers may have paid additional fees to access third-party ingredient databases.

 

To cover the software license and system maintenance fees, Weiss said he pays Nutricate "the equivalent of a few dollars a day" per location.

Weiss explained that the system consists of a Nutricate receipt interceptor computer, or RIC, that physically resides beneath the thermal receipt printer that is part of the POS station in his Extreme Pita units. Order data entered into the ITS 2020 POS system used by Weiss moves through a router to the RIC, which, upon receiving the information, appends nutritional details and messaging, reformats the information in line with parameters pre-defined by Weiss and passes the information to the printer.

The receipt turned out in Weiss' restaurants lists each item ordered, with a breakdown of its calorie, fat, carbohydrate and protein content. A calculation of percentage of daily values from each item purchased — reflecting figures for a daily intake of 2,000 and 2,500 calories alike — also is given, as is the total number of calories and fat, carbohydrate and protein grams in the entire meal.

Customer response to the receipts has been "overwhelmingly positive," according to Weiss. "Both transaction counts and sales are up by 15 percent since we put the system in, and although it's impossible to say the system is entirely responsible, I really think the receipts have sparked most of the increase," he noted. "We have a loyalty card program, so we track our best customers. Before we started with the receipts, most came in once or twice every two weeks; now it's once or twice a week."

Beyond Extreme Pita and Silvergreens, Nutricate has yet to ink any additional agreements with operators. The existing version does not have a direct interface with operators' POS systems, but the vendor is making available an alternative configuration for operators with more than 250 POS terminals fitted with the same POS software. In this configuration, the software is integrated with any existing POS hardware, thus eliminating the need for the RIC. All features offered on the receipt remain the same.

Meanwhile, Au Bon Pain continues to refine the touchscreen computer kiosks it installed in 2003 to provide consumers with nutrition information and detailed ingredient lists on all menu items, including seasonal and other promotional offerings. The kiosks are reconfigured POS terminals whose hard drives contain nutrition and ingredient information similar to that seen on the company's website at www.aubonpain.com [3]. All 115 company-owned and 15 of 70 franchised Au Bon Pain stores have the technology in place. Franchisees are not required to implement the units, but the franchisor strongly recommends that they do so "in order to keep up with consumer demand for this type of data," said Ed Freschette, Au Bon Pain's vice president of marketing.

Freschette said the kiosks' programming and content has been adjusted to include an increased number of specialty categories, such as "Lower in Saturated Fat" and "Higher in Fiber." Customers can peruse the categories to determine which items might best fit their specific dietary needs or help them avoid allergens. In line with informal customer feedback solicited in stores, new categories added encompass "Higher in Protein," "Lower in Carbohydrates" and "Lower in Sodium."

Diners still cannot request information for customized orders, such as a standard sandwich made without mayonnaise or cheese. Freschette said that adding this capability would necessitate replacing the existing kiosks, which are essentially assets that were redeployed when the company altered its concept, with Web-enabled hardware. "Custom information is available on the My Plate page of our website," Freschette noted. "While we'd love to give customers access to My Plate in-store, we aren't ready to make a major technology commitment."

He added that "for the most part," the existing kiosks satiate diners' hunger for nutrition data. The chain recently surveyed several thousand of its eClub loyalty program members to gauge how frequently they use the kiosks. More than 10 percent of individuals polled said they do so every time they visit an Au Bon Pain store. "This indicates to us that the approach we're currently using is working, as do the emails and letters we receive to the same effect," Freschette said.

The kiosks' local databases are updated every few weeks to reflect new menu items or promotional products associated. This involves distributing to the restaurants Universal Serial Bus, or USB, data drives containing the new information. After receiving a drive with updated information, a store manager plugs it into the computer terminal's USB port and turns the terminal off and then back on. Upon rebooting, the terminal loads the new data.

Among other operators that have jumped on the nutrition kiosk bandwagon are Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill and Fresh Concepts Inc.-owned Fresh City. The latter has such kiosks in five of its nine corporate-owned stores and both of its franchised units in Livingston and Manalapan, N.J. All stores will have the technology in place going forward, according to Bruce Reinstein, chief operating officer.

Unlike that of Au Bon Pain, the Fresh City configuration enables diners to determine how such attributes as calorie, fat and sodium content will change should they decide to customize their orders —requesting, for example, that the contents of a burrito be served in a bowl rather than as a wrap. That feat is achieved through the use of Web-enabled hardware that yields customers access to the "Know Your Food" page on the Fresh City website,  www.freshcity.com [4].

Reinstein said Fresh City positions the kiosks as "lifestyle" kiosks, not "nutrition" kiosks. "To us, the value of the kiosks is not in telling consumers how many calories are in 'x' item or how much sodium is in 'y' item, but in assisting them in selecting the food that suits their lifestyle. A 200-pound man is going to have different nutritional needs than, say, a 95-pound woman."