Restaurateurs are learning to navigate the ever-changing and often-rocky landscape of health, nutrition and diet, a territory that might be called the internal ecosystem of the consumer.
Operators who offer a wide array of menu items, marketing programs and technological tools to help patrons address dietary concerns are finding the path to healthful eating no less confusing than their customers do.
“The consumers’ heads are spun from what they read in the papers and hear on the news,” says Matt Stein, chief seafood officer for the 11-unit King’s Fish House chain, based in Costa Mesa, Calif. “They imagine that if there really is a legitimate issue, the government will step in and do something.”
Lawmakers, however, have only gingerly stepped into the realm of nutrition, with municipalities such as New York enacting bans on trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease.
Restaurateurs, meanwhile, have worked to remove trans fats from their menus and touted that fact. They have provided websites with nutritional information. They have created food and beverage programs that emphasize organic and additive-free items. And they have built entire concepts, such as Darden Restaurants’ seven-unit Seasons 52 chain, that provide limited-calorie menus.
Concern about diet, health and nutrition is widespread among consumers. Stephen Rosenstock, senior vice president of brand standards and business development at Omni Hotels, said: “In the past, people went down the grocery store aisles and seldom looked at what was in the cans or on the labels. People now really want to know what’s in those cans and boxes. We felt that because the consumer was looking at that in grocery stores, we needed to ensure that what we were serving in our restaurants and kitchens provided them a choice.”
The awareness is especially acute among the aging baby boomers, the large demographic bubble of people born between 1946 and 1964.
“Baby boomers are into healthy living,” Rosenstock says. “I’m a baby boomer myself, and I don’t want to get old. I want to stay healthy. Marketing and everything you get bombarded with in commercials and magazines, it’s everywhere.”
The one dietary concern that restaurants from quick service to fine dining have embraced is that of the aversion to partially hydrogenated oils, which are responsible for most of the artificial trans fats in consumers’ diets.
Over the past two years, many restaurants have worked to remove all or most trans fats from their menus. In mid-summer, bd’s Mongolian Grill, the 31-unit chain based in Ferndale, Mich., became another restaurant to assure that its entire menu was trans-fat-free.
“Trans fats are neither required nor beneficial for health, and we’re proud to be one of the few multiunit chains in the United States to offer our entire menu, including desserts, trans-fat-free,” says Billy Downs, owner and founder of bd’s Mongolian Grill. “This move reinforces our commitment to health and wellness.”
Working with vendors, the chain took a close look at every menu item. “We completed a full analysis of every item served in our restaurants, identifying the products that needed to be reformulated or removed from our menu,” says Deb Fratrik, bd’s chief operating officer.
The chain also created an interactive tool, the online Create A Bowl program, for guests to analyze the nutritional content of their meal. Launched earlier this year on bd’s website,
“Our guests are increasingly more focused on healthier eating habits and lifestyles,” Downs says. “Whether you are on a special diet, training for a marathon or just want to watch what you’re eating, this online nutritional calculator can be a valuable tool in achieving your specific goals.”
Visitors to the bd’s website can save as many as 10 menu creations in a free online account.
“One of the great benefits of this website is that guests can save or print out the recipes,” Downs says.
For several years, the menu of the King’s Fish House restaurants has included an emblem declaring that all fried items are cooked in trans-fat-free oil.
“We knew for a long time that hydrogenated oils are really horrible for you,” Stein says. “There is one exception. There is some hydrogenated oil in our crust for Key Lime pie. We were pretty much able to knock it out of the menu.”
The company has also highlighted a guest education program on its website, marketing it on place mats and brochures.
Customer reaction has been positive but not overwhelming, Stein says.
“The reaction is not overt,” he says. “We’re getting a nice buzz from the guests, and they tell us that they appreciate it. The message behind the entire program is that there are potential risks, but we believe that those risks are far outweighed by the benefits of seafood. We didn’t want to be reactive to news.”
The idea behind the education program is to offer guests choices, says Sam King, president and chief executive of the chain’s parent, King’s Seafood Co.
The campaign includes a place mat with facts about the health benefits of seafood along with consumption advice for women who are pregnant, nursing or planning to become pregnant. A frequently asked question brochure is provided to guests who request more information.
“By combining the best-quality fish with the most relevant and accurate information, we’re promoting our diverse menu while empowering our guests to make healthy choices,” King says.
The guest education material draws from the most current, expert advice from such organizations as the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies, Harvard University’s School of Public Health and the American Heart Association.
“People are concerned about what they have heard about mercury and PCBs in seafood, and bacteria in raw seafood,” Stein says. “We address these concerns, which are sometimes misrepresented in the media, while describing the many health benefits of seafood.”
The high-profile success of Seasons 52 has drawn attention. Since first opening in February 2003, Seasons 52 has made healthful eating its centerpiece. Owner Darden Restaurants Inc. of Orlando, Fla., which also owns the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, has expanded Seasons 52 within Florida and to Georgia, bringing the total number of units to seven.
All menu items contain fewer than 475 calories, taking away much of the dietary confusion that customers face when dining out. Clifford Pleau, director of culinary development for the chain, says: “Our guests really enjoy the grilled foods, fresher ingredients and lighter preparations. The menu especially appeals to people who are watching more closely what they eat.”
That watchfulness led Omni Hotels of Irving, Texas, to upgrade its breakfasts, which have nearly a 50-percent capture rate among its guests.
Omni debuted “The Art of Breakfast” this past spring, highlighting high-quality ingredients and more information for customers.
“It has taken more than a year to assemble a menu of breakfast bests that will truly inspire and excite our guests’ senses,” says Fernando Salazar, vice president of food and beverage. “We held out for the highest-quality eggs and breakfast meats, patiently waited for harvests of organic, shade-grown coffee beans, and challenged our chefs to perfect recipes that complement the flavors of these unparalleled ingredients.”
The menu includes eggs gathered from cage-free chickens, a program that has earned praise from The Humane Society. The program was developed with Egg Innovations, a small family farm in Port Washington, Wis., that’s committed to the humane treatment of hens allowed to roam freely in their natural habitat.
Guests have been impressed with the other offerings as well, says Omni’s Rosenstock.
“We rolled the program out in the spring,” he said. “It’s a buffet-style breakfast that offers cage-free eggs, and bacons and sausages that are more European and natural and organic and nitrate-free. They have less fat and hormones. We also have organic cereals. I call them the ‘adult cereals.’ They are all organic, including everything from Kashi to oat-bran flakes and spelt flakes and organic steel-cut oats. We see a lot of the guests partaking of the adult cereals.”
Omni, like other hospitality companies, is emphasizing more organic foods that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2002 standards: crops grown without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers or sewage sludge; animals reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones; food processed without ionizing radiation or the use of most food additives; and food produced on all levels without the use of genetically modified organisms.
The USDA said the market for organic products more than doubled between 2000 and 2006, with such mainstream retailers as Wal-Mart offering sections devoted to the products.
Marketing of Omni’s program has been subtle, says spokes-woman Caryn Kboudi.
“The menu itself talks about what the components are,” she says. “Sometimes you want to have a story about your meal. We’ve done a lot to make sure the wait-staff can speak to the components of the breakfast. Not to be overly solicitous or too in-your-face, but to provide good nuggets of information to the guest in the morning, a nugget of conversation. The information is also carried on the room-service menu as well.”
Rosenstock adds that “The Art of Breakfast” doesn’t hammer the guest with the health message.
“The signage is subtle, like reading a label on a box,” he says. “It tells the customer what is being offered, whether it is organic. We’re letting the consumer know where the food is coming from and what is in it.”
Like other operators, Rosen-stock said the health and nutrition efforts can’t overshadow good food and interesting menus.
“The one thing that is constant in food and beverage is that it’s always changing,” he says. “But for anything we do, we’re not going to sacrifice taste.”