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Chains adding more low-cal menu items

Federal menu-labeling regulations may go into effect as soon as the end of the year, but chain restaurants are already ramping up the number of lower-calorie dishes they offer, according to Technomic Inc.

The industry research firm said Thursday its MenuMonitor online tracking tool has registered an increase in the number of dishes with 550 calories or fewer at restaurants, with new items coming from such chains as Mimi’s Café, Fazoli’s and Carl’s Jr.

However, Technomic and some chain operators say the increase in lower-calorie fare is less about making changes before menu-labeling rules set in and more about staying competitive.

EARLIER: What the FDA menu-labeling regs really mean

“I think it goes back to the idea of not having a veto vote,” said Ron Paul, president of Technomic. “You need these items on the menu because others have already done it. Once that happens the rest of the gang follows along.”

Technomic said new lower-calorie dishes on chain menus include a 420-calorie Half Turkey Club SuperMelt with a garden salad at Friendly’s, a 490-calorie guacamole turkey burger at Carl’s Jr., and the veggie Burger with fruit at Mimi’s Café, which contains 364 calories.

Mimi’s Café’s senior vice president of marketing, Mimi Somerman, said the chain developed its Fresh and Fit menu section, which includes the veggie burger, last year as a way to meet guest preferences, not in advance of federal menu-labeling mandates. She noted that the 145-unit chain has listed calorie counts for its menu items online for years.

“California has had menu labeling for a while, but we’ve focused on [low-calorie] items like this prior to that,” Somerman said. “We try to give our guests what they want, and it happens that the government now thinks it’s important, too.”

Fazoli’s also is adding lower-calorie options to its menu. Earlier this year, the 250-unit quick-service chain debuted four Mini Bake dishes with 400 calories or fewer, a limited-time offer that chief executive Carl Howard said made between 10 percent to 15 percent of sales during its run beginning in early January, with limited advertising support.

Howard said the Mini Bakes were developed after a previous “right price, right portion” promotional menu performed well with customers and Fazoli’s culinary team realized the items on that menu all contained around 400 calories. The Mini Bake pasta items were then engineered to hit the 400-calorie mark for $3.99.

The development process predated the threat of national menu labeling with the passage of health care reform, though the chain was mindful that menu labeling was gathering steam, Howard said.

“We stumbled upon this 400-calorie item, but we definitely realized that menu labeling is coming,” he said. “We need to be aware of the consumer who’s going to want lower-calorie offerings, and we need to have tasteful, compelling items for them.”

Howard said Fazoli’s had more lower-calorie items planned, including a line of chopped salads that will debut later this month and an “Under 400 Calories Menu,” which is being tested in Dayton, Ohio. The low-calorie menu will be part of a complete menu overhaul that will launch systemwide in October.

The menu changes are not necessarily a response to menu labeling, Howard said.

“With the chopped salads, we just needed to upgrade our line, and we’ll get the halo or benefit from that,” he said. “As far as the 400 calories or less section, we just think it’s a win for us, and we might have naturally gone to that anyway.”

Fazoli’s has tested the effect of posting calorie counts on ordering behavior by adding that nutrition data to the menu boards of five locations in the Des Moines, Iowa. Howard said the chain received little feedback from customers on the change, and that menu mix, traffic and average check were relatively unaffected. Fazoli’s will try a similar test with new units in Denver.

“What we found troublesome is the cost we’ll incur and how we’ll skinny down our drive-thru board,” he said.

Technomic’s Paul said a few restaurant chains, based on the nature of their healthful brand positioning, may take advantage of calorie counts on menu boards, but most probably won’t change their marketing mix in the wake of the FDA’s publication of the guidelines.

“I was at a Burger King in California, where guidelines have already been in place, last week, for example, and they’ve got everything up there in terms of calories, but they’re not featuring any one thing over the other,” Paul said. “Because of condiments on dishes, everything has such a big range in terms of calorie counts.”

Somerman of Mimi’s Café said the casual-dining chain also has not seen drastic changes in ordering behavior with the publication of calorie counts in menus.

“We just have to strike a balance,” she said. “When people are concerned about nutrition, we have items for that, and when they want to be indulged, we try to make them happy there, too.”

Some customers are sure to trade down to lower-calorie items, but “it’s a small percentage of people,” Paul said.

“Calorie labeling has been on retail packages for years and years, and the country’s gotten fatter and fatter,” he said. “It’s a safe bet the impact from this on ordering behavior will be very moderate.”

So while the new requirements are not likely to scare many restaurant customers into not buying their regular menu items and cost those brands lost sales, the regulations still will necessitate that chains spend money on updating menus and menu boards, testing items for nutritional content, and paying lawyers to comb through the additional information that eateries must provide to customers.

“There are costs for operators, no question,” Paul said. “There’s no way this lowers costs.”

Howard said Fazoli’s is glad the regulations may not take effect for another year.

“It’s an expensive change; for a private company like us it’ll cost a lot of money,” he said. “But if it’s the right thing to do, we’ll swallow it and move on.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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