Silver Diner's executive chef on building a healthful kids' menu

Silver Diner's executive chef on building a healthful kids' menu

Ype von Hengst, co-founder and executive chef, says Silver Diner restaurants have seen success with healthful kids' items

Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president and founder of Healthy Dining, a nutrition-related marketing and consulting firm, interviews Ype von Hengst, co-founder and executive chef of Silver Diner Development Inc., which operates 15 Silver Diner restaurants in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.

This interview and others can be seen at Healthy Dining’s Restaurant Nutrition News & Insights [4].

In 2012 you made some really impressive changes to Silver Diner's kids' menu, which I want to talk more about. So first, tell us why you are making these changes. Have they been good for your business?

Absolutely. It has been very good for our business. Our overall sales have been increasing steadily over the last few years. And we know it is because of all the health-oriented changes we have been making. Great taste and 'good for you' is fueling our business. Our guests want healthy, high-quality ingredients. And kids are really driving our business.

Von Hengst says developing healthful desserts is in the product pipeline.

We surveyed about 1,000 of our customers, and 70 percent of them told us that their children decide where the family will eat. We want them to eat at Silver Diner, so we make sure we are pleasing our young guests and their parents.

So what are you doing to please kids and their parents?

We know that families want to eat out, and they want to feel good about the quality of the food they are served. That’s why we are so committed to offering high-quality food that is healthy too. I think that is our responsibility to our communities, to our kids and future generations. We have to feed them healthful food, not junk. That’s why sourcing from our local farmers is so important to us. Our customers really appreciate that.

And last year we added more Kids LiveWell menu choices to our kids' menu. We have more Kids LiveWell qualifying menu items than any other restaurant in the United States, and we are really proud of that.

I was so glad that I was able to attend your kids' tasting event at your Rockville, Md., location. That was fascinating to see the kids so excited about eating healthy. I was so surprised when the majority of the kids voted for whole grain pasta over white enriched. Tell us about the event.

We invited two groups of 15 kids each to come and taste some of the new Kids LiveWell menu choices I created. I wanted to make sure kids liked the items before adding them to our menu.  And we found the new items were a big hit. We tested bison meatballs, chicken quesadillas, macaroni and cheese with vegetables and whole grain pasta, and salmon with brown rice.  The kids’ input was extremely helpful in shaping the new healthier menu.

Exposing kids to new flavors

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I remember you asked the kids how many had tried salmon before and most of them had not. And yet most of them said they liked the salmon. It is so important to keep exposing kids to new foods, and it’s exciting to see that you are offering such a wide variety of items that meet the Kids LiveWell guidelines. Tell us about your other Kids LiveWell items.

We have 20 menu items that meet the nutritional standards of the Kids LiveWell program. A really popular item is our kids' sliders. We offer them in bison, beef and turkey and black bean veggie. Kids also like our teriyaki salmon and chicken entrees served with brown rice, edamame and mixed veggies.

We are offering a lot of healthier sides like fresh strawberries, green salad, edamame, brown rice, applesauce and mixed veggies. Last year we found that we had more kids ordering strawberries than fries. And more kids were ordering juice and milk than soda. So we knew that was our opportunity to really treat our kids well by dropping fries and soda from our kids' menu. They can still order them — they're just not promoted. And kids and their parents don’t seem to miss them at all.

And you have sales data that shows you are making a difference in kids’ lives. Tell us about that.
Yes, our sales of kids' salads are up 63 percent, mixed veggies are up 32 percent and strawberries are up 100 percent. And sales of our sausage, bacon and home fries are down about 60 percent. I am really proud of this. We are truly feeding our kids much healthier and they like that.

You’ve made so much progress in the last few years, and I am so glad to hear it is good for your business. What’s in store for this year?

I am working on new recipes now. They are extensions of what we are already doing because we want to continue to add a wider variety of healthy dining choices. We are looking at adding more vegetarian and pescatarian choices. I’m also working on some healthier desserts and lactose-free desserts.  
Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected] [10].