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Operators slim down menu items amid consumer demand for nutritious dishes

After years of talking about healthful eating, consumers finally seem to be putting their money where their mouths are.

Even before the new year put dieting resolutions into effect, a study by The NPD Group found that consumers were ordering fewer carbonated soft drinks, hot dogs, fried chicken and French fries and ordering more milk, grilled chicken and grilled chicken sandwiches, nonfried fish, breakfast cereals, fruit and yogurt.

“This shift in consumers choosing healthier foods at restaurants is partially due to the increasing availability of healthier foods on restaurant menus,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst. “Restaurant operators are responding to their customers’ needs for healthier or lighter foods.”

Of course, that response is being driven in part by the federal menu-labeling requirements expected out in March. Restaurant operators across segments are slimming down all or parts of their menus and also turning up the growth of health-oriented concepts as nutrition consciousness gathers momentum.

Darden Restaurants Inc. in 2010 added seven new Seasons 52 

casual-dining units, which are known for a menu of items with 475 calories or fewer, bringing the chain’s total unit count to 15. Muscle Maker Grill of Woodbridge, N.J., has grown to three-dozen fast-casual units in the Northeast and Florida. And My Fit Foods of Houston, founded in 2007, has spread its predominantly take-away concept into four Texas markets with 27 stores.

Healthy intentions

Industry research indicates healthful eating will ramp up further. Mintel Menu Insights named health as the top trend for 2011, with the Chicago-based research firm saying 62 percent of surveyed consumers said they planned to eat better this year.

“Both the government and consumers want healthier menu options, but restaurant-goers are also very concerned about value and how their food tastes,” said Eric Giandelone, Mintel’s director of foodservice research. 

Dana Herrera, director of marketing and services for My Fit Foods, agreed. 

“Everyone can benefit from eating healthy and everyone is looking to improve their overall health,” Herrera said. “We provide an option for everyone.”

Many operators are keeping an eye on menu components, from calories and sugar to sodium and fat. Taco Bell last fall quietly removed 20 percent of the sodium from menu items in the Dallas-Fort Worth market and indicated plans to roll out the reductions systemwide. Chipotle has long emphasized its concern about hormones in meats. Jason’s Deli touted its removal of products with high-fructose corn syrup
and trans fats.

Meanwhile, high-profile chefs have signed on to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health “Meatless Mondays” initiative, which seeks to reduce meat consumption in the U.S. market by 15 percent. Chef-owner Mario Batalli instituted Meatless Mondays at his 14 restaurants, as did Red Rooster chef-owner Marcus Samuelsson.

“People are becoming more and more aware of the importance of reading labels and nutrition facts so you know what you’re putting in your body,” said Herrera. “At My Fit Foods we use only high-quality ingredients including lean meats, low-glycemic carbohydrates and heart-healthy essential fats.”

Consumers attracted to such menus tend to be younger and in a higher income stratum, but that’s not exclusive.

“Our demographic is typically ages 25 to 45, 70 percent female, average household income of between $60,000 to $100,000,” said Herrera. “Although we have locations in very high-end areas ... we also have locations in less affluent areas. This ensures that everyone has access to a healthy option.”

Restaurant response

The number of healthful options available at restaurants is only expected to grow. The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm, projected in a report released in November that servings of lighter sandwiches — such as grilled chicken, cold-cut combos and vegetable sandwiches — would grow 13 percent over the next 10 years, outpacing the anticipated 8-percent increase in commercial restaurant traffic.

Operators are doing their best to capitalize on the health halo. Subway offers calorie information down to individual ingredients. IHOP has a “Simple & Fit” menu with items at 600 calories or less. Carlson Restaurants’ T.G.I. Friday’s offered a “Right Portion, Right Price” menu and Brinker International’s Chili’s has long had its “Guiltless Grill” offerings. Romano’s Macaroni Grill has enhanced its lower-calorie options. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is working on a “Bistro 500” project.

And the new year has ushered in a slew of healthful menu additions. Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill, the 2,000-unit casual-dining chain based in Lenexa, Kan., and owned by DineEquity Inc., added two dishes to its “Under 550 Calories” menu: Signature Sirloin with Garlic Herb Shrimp and Teriyaki Pasta with Chicken or Shrimp. The lower-calorie menu now has six items. Applebee’s also added two new Skinny Bee cocktails: a mojito and a Long Island iced tea, each with fewer than 120 calories.

Dunkin’ Donuts, the 9,000-unit quick-service chain based in Canton, Mass., debuted two new varieties of its Wake-Up Wraps: an egg whites with turkey sausage version and egg whites with veggies. Both have 150 calories and are priced at $1.29. The items are part of its “DDSMART” menu.

Corner Bakery Cafe, the 118-unit fast-casual chain owned by CBC Restaurant Corp., based in Dallas, extended its “100 Under 600” program, which features more than 100 different combinations of sandwiches, paninis, salads or soups with fewer than 600 calories.

Bob Evans Restaurants, the 569-unit family-dining chain based in Columbus, Ohio, said it would grow its “BE Fit Breakfast” program as of Jan. 6 with new cranberry multigrain sidecakes, Bob Evans Egg Lites and a fresh fruit dish. Bob Evans introduced its “Fit from the Farm” options with fewer than 650 calories, less than 750 mg
sodium and lower fat in 2010.

More health-oriented restaurant outlets are on the horizon. For example, the vegan-vegetarian Native Foods Café of Costa Mesa, Calif., which was founded in 1994 by vegan chef Tanya Petrovna, has grown to seven units under its private-equity owners, and more are being developed. And popular independents in the healthful category include Protein Bar in Chicago and Pump Energy Food and Energy Kitchen in New York.

The downside

Full-bore health menus still carry risks. Chicago-based Technomic Inc., said its research found nearly half of consumers wanted more healthful dishes, but only about a quarter of them consider nutrition when dining out.

“Many consumers are actually making substantial changes to their overall habits,” said Darren Tristano, Technomic’s executive vice president. “However, as many of us know from personal experience, diners do not always follow through on their intentions once it is time to order.”

Techonomic, in producing its “2010 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report,” found only 19 percent of consumers felt food described as “healthy” on the menu tasted as good as other options.

Similarly, Mintel found that while some consumers will change their orders when calories are listed on the menu, they were also likely to indulge in higher-calorie, limited-time offers.

Technomic found at-home behaviors differed significantly from away-from-home ones. Two of five consumers describe their at-home eating as “very healthy,” while only a quarter say the same about dining out.

That may explain part of the success of take-away-heavy My Fit Foods.

“We use a very nontraditional marketing approach,” said Herrera. “We spend little to zero dollars on traditional marketing such as billboards, radio, TV and magazines and focus our time on grassroots marketing.”

My Fit Foods also has found its customer base is broad and harder to target. 

“We have such a wide array of clientele because being healthy is not a trend, it’s a way of life that more and more people are beginning to understand and adopt,” Herrera said.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].

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