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Qdoba’s Smart Meals

Qdoba’s Smart Meals

At Qdoba Mexican Grill, it’s healthy to go naked—but that’s not an invitation for customers to doff their garments. In Qdoba parlance, “naked” refers to menu items served without tortillas.

Last year, Qdoba earned a “Smart Meal” seal from the state of Colorado for four of its “naked” dishes, and this year those dishes are winners of a 2009 MenuMasters award in the “Healthful Innovations” category. The dishes are popular with customers, too. Ted Stoner, Qdoba’s director of strategic product development, estimates that about 25 percent of Qdoba customers choose “naked” menu items.

Giedre Stasiunaite, a student who currently is in her senior year at Metro State University in Denver, was instrumental in bringing the Smart Meal program to the attention of Stoner and Qdoba quality assurance specialist, Lauren Lahn. As a participant in “The Apprentice Challenge @ Metro State” last year, Stasiunaite took on several challenges aimed at helping local nonprofits and businesses tackle diverse issues, including trying to encourage restaurants to offer more healthful menus through the state’s Smart Meals program. She went on to win the Apprentice Challenge, which garnered her a full-tuition scholarship for her senior year at Metro State and a paid internship at the nonprofit “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

The Colorado Smart Meal program, begun in 2005, aims to make consumers and restaurants alike more aware and more supportive of more healthful menu items. There are 190 “Smart Meal” restaurants in Colorado, including 64 Qdobas.

Shana Patterson, a registered dietitian and nutrition coordinator for the Colorado Physical Activity and Nutrition program, which is part of the Colorado Department of Public Health, hopes the program will serve as a national model and calls Qdoba’s participation significant.

“Qdoba is able to reach a greater quantity of customers than our program could through other reasonable venues,” Patterson says. “On the other hand, through the Smart Meal program, Qdoba is given a greater credibility with their customers because of the membership in this state-based menu-labeling program. The greater the visibility within restaurants, the greater the customer demand, the greater the demand for restaurants to come on board. It’s a win-win for all of us.”

No place like your own menu

Like Dorothy realizing she had the power to return home from Oz all along, Qdoba examined its bill of fare and found it already was well suited to meet Smart Meal criteria, thanks to an ingredient roster that includes an array of vegetables, extra-lean pork and lean beef, light sour cream, and no-fat salsas. At Qdoba customers can specify exactly what components are added or omitted from dishes, making it easy to customize selections for a variety of tastes and nutritional needs.

Stoner says he and Lahn “are proud that we’ve got a trans-fat-free menu, a third of all the products on our line are fat-free, and all our salsas are fat-free.

“We have so many really wholesome foods that are low in saturated fat,” Stoner says, citing the fat-free house-cooked beans as an example. “You look at what goes into the pot of beans, and it’s identifiable ingredients like red onion, cumin, a sprinkle of salt and lime juice.

“Our No. 1 competitor has pork in pinto beans. We didn’t feel it was necessary. We feel that the pinto beans have a great flavor on their own, so we do a little ‘stealthy healthy’ and just try to do the right thing. If we don’t need that extra gram of fat in there, let’s not add it.”

Flavor first

Nevertheless, flavor is paramount.

“We’re very fortunate to have very intense flavors that are fat-free, like our pico de gallo or our habanero salsa,” Stoner says, “and things that really step up the flavor without adding a lot in the way of calories or fat.”

ITEMS: Naked dishesROLLOUT: April 2008COMPANY: Qdoba Mexican Grill, a subsidiary of Jack in the BoxHEADQUARTERS: Wheat Ridge, Colo.UNITS: 470-plus in 42 states, with more than 60 in ColoradoDESCRIPTION:Poblano Pesto Naked Burrito: Chicken, pinto beans, salsa verde, poblano pesto sauce, light, low-sodium sour cream, lettuce—14.5 ounces, 470 calories

Naked Chicken Taco Salad: Romaine lettuce, black bean and corn salsa, fat-free ranch dressing, adobo-marinated grilled chicken, pico de gallo—12.5 ounces, 330 calories

Garlic Herb Grilled Veggie Naked Taco Salad: Romaine lettuce, black bean and corn salsa, ranch dressing, grilled veggies, salsa verde—12.5 ounces, 200 calories

Naked Pork Burrito: Cilantro lime rice, black beans, pork, salsa verde, pico de gallo—15 ounces, 540 calories

The meals are all regular combinations served “naked”—without the typically accompanying tortilla—on a 9-inch plate.PRICES: may vary by location Poblano Pesto Naked Burrito: $6.39 Naked Chicken Taco Salad: $6.19 Garlic Herb Grilled Veggie Naked Taco Salad: $5.29 Naked Pork Burrito: $6.29DEVELOPERS: Ted Stoner, director of strategic product development; Lauren Lahn, quality assurance specialist

Other Qdoba specialties perfect for “naked” satisfaction include char-grilled yellow squash, zucchini and red peppers sautéed in sofrito, a garlic herb concentrate made with olive oil, a lot of garlic, oregano, jalapeños and cilantro.

Patterson sums up the message she hopes consumers will take to heart.

“Eating healthy doesn’t mean your meal has to lack flavor,” she says. “The Naked Pork Burrito Smart Meal starts with pork that has been slow-roasted for six hours and then hand-shredded. Add made-from-scratch pico de gallo salsa and slow-simmered black beans, and you have a Smart Meal that is full of flavor.”

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