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Serving Up Calorie Counts

Limited-time offers are exempt from the calorie rule, allowing customers the occasional guilt-free splurge. Photo courtesy of national pork board. Calorie disclosures spark menu strategies that please indulgers and calorie-watchers alike

By Kathy Hayden

Upcoming calorie-count legislation promises to be the biggest piece of news to affect the foodservice industry since the Big Mac. Impending mandates from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require foodservice operators with 20 or more units to post calorie counts on indoor menu boards and at drive-thru locations. It will also require restaurants to put calories in context and state that the average person should consume 2,000 calories a day.

While this legislation may take longer to execute industry-wide, it will generate enough media attention to make consumers fully aware of just how calorie-laden many restaurant meals can be.

Menu R&D professionals often keep their plans close to the vest, and it’s difficult to predict what temporary or permanent menu changes might arise as a result of this new legislation, but recent months and years have seen many operators already embracing a few strategies that will address the coming calorie counts and avoid the fall-out as consumers get a full look at potential calorie intakes.

The pending calorie-count disclosure allows for a loophole, and Mintel, a consumer-market analyst with offices in Chicago, predicts it will be a super-sized one. The FDA mandate does not apply to limited-time offers (LTOs) or any item on the menu for 60 days or less each calendar year. Operators will take advantage of this loophole by offering some of their more-indulgent creations as novelty or seasonal menu items, allowing customers to opt for guilty treats without seeing the calorie counts and feeling pressured to make a health-minded menu choice.

As it stands, 43 percent of consumers say they’re likely to change what they order when calorie counts are listed on the menu, according to Mintel’s Emerging Restaurant Concepts—U.S. report from December 2010 (see sidebar). Limited-time offers will allow all consumers the occasional opportunity to indulge in a meal out and take a pass on calorie counting.

A few notable LTOs from the recent past offer glimpses of the extra-indulgent menu specials that could be a sign of LTOs to come:

IHOP combines breakfast and dessert with New York Cheesecake Stuffed Pancakes: Fluffy buttermilk pancakes, loaded with creamy, rich cheesecake pieces and crowned with cool strawberries, powdered sugar and whipped topping, weigh in at 850 calories, 300 calories from fat and 1,830 milligrams of sodium.

Denny’s Fried Cheese Melt is billed as “grilled cheese with a twist” and features four fried mozzarella sticks and melted American cheese grilled between two slices of sourdough bread. Served with wavy-cut french fries and a side of marinara sauce, this special was referred to as “culinary terrorism” on one popular food blog, a title it earned with its 1,260 calories, 63 fat grams and shocking 3,010 milligrams of sodium.

Sonic made news in 2010 with its Tex-Mex Footlong Quarter Pound Coney Dog, covered in chili and cheese and topped with Fritos corn chips, jalapeños, onions and a zesty chipotle sauce. This big dog has a baseline calorie count of 810 calories (that’s without the chips and sauce), 477 calories from fat, and 1,796 milligrams of sodium.

KFC also created a buzz with its Double-Down — a “sandwich” with two chicken filets (fried or grilled) wrapped around ham, cheese and special sauce. As indulgent as it sounds, this packs a seemingly modest 610 calories, over half of them from fat, and 1,990 milligrams of sodium.

Better-for-you menu options include using more nutritious ingredients, downsizing portions and calling out healthy choices. Photo courtesy of jamba juice. Whataburger created The Whataburger 5-3-1, named for its unique toppings: five pickles, three onion rings and topped with one great creamy pepper sauce, all served with two 100-percent-fresh, never-frozen, American beef patties grilled to perfection, a slice of Monterey Jack cheese and a slice of American cheese between two slices of Texas toast. It racks up 1,030 calories, 560 calories from fat, and 2056 milligrams of sodium.

There are three good reasons restaurant operators will want to keep adding these “exemptions from the rule,” or extra-indulgent options to the LTO menu:

1. They make these LTOs because they can. With calorie-disclosure exemptions, operators will still be free to innovate and introduce novelty menu items that fly under the calorie-count radar.

2. History has shown these over-the-top creations do indeed spur traffic and even create news.

3. These super-sized special sell. In its initial period, KFC sold some 10 million Double Downs. Sonic attributes better dinner sales to its Footlong Quarter-Pound Coney Dog.

On the flip side of this calorie-counting legislation are the menu strategies that will show the true numbers on menus. While we’ve long heard that the coming year will be the year consumers start to eat more healthfully when dining out — and Mintel has tracked a 70 percent increase in menu items described as “healthy” from the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2010 — some restaurants are starting to address the better-for-you (“BFY”) challenge by swapping in more nutritious ingredients to their patrons’ favorite dishes, down-sizing some favorite indulgences and positioning more menu offerings as better choices.

Making more-healthful food choices has always proven a challenge to foodservice consumers, with most people preferring BFY menu choices in theory than in practice. Recent Mintel research finds that 62 percent of consumers say they plan to eat more healthfully in the upcoming year, and calorie-count requirements might finally reinforce these efforts.

More reinforcement comes from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in 2010, which now call on restaurants and the food industry “to offer health-promoting foods that are low in sodium; limited in added sugars, refined grains and solid fats; and served in smaller portions.”

Mintel has tracked some moves toward healthful dining on the part of both consumers and operators. Instead of wanting to eat absolutely healthfully, consumers are looking for restaurants to help them take small steps in improving their diet. Restaurants will help diners with these steps not by introducing entirely new “heart-healthy” menu sections (which have often failed to entice anyone), but by adding more portion-size options, healthier or BFY ingredient-substitutions, like whole-grain bread and low-fat salad dressings, and fruit and vegetable side-dish options.

Often, BFY options give operators an overall healthful halo that works to get people in the door; once inside, the true nutrition on offer could be a mixed bag, but things like side salads, whole-grain bread and oatmeal are enough to give operators what Mintel calls a “healthy by association” profile. Once calorie counts start to appear, these BFY options and a mix of trimmed-down portion sizes will help improve the overall menu presentation, with moderate calorie counts balancing the 800-calorie muffins and bagels or the four-figure indulgences. In fact, many national multi-units are already testing the waters with BFY menu sections that do include calorie counts.

Fresh ingredients give fast-casual eateries like Jason’s Deli a healthy halo which often overshadows the less-than-healthful options. Photo courtesy of jason’s deli. HEALTHY ASSOCIATIONS
Here are some other examples of operations garnering “healthy by association” attention:

In June 2010, Einstein Noah Restaurant Group added Bagel Thin Sandwiches to its Einstein Bros. Bagels and Noah’s New York Bagels brands. These smaller sandwiches are positioned as being lower in calories and fat, available in turkey bacon and avocado, tuna and turkey. A couple of the Bagel Thins are available “with light shmear” for 225 calories, as opposed to the 350 calorie count of a full-sized bagel.

In October 2010, Taco Bueno debuted a low-calorie “Bueno Choice Menu” with nine items ranging from 150 to 450 calories and priced at $1.69 to $3.99. Among offerings are Fresco Chicken Soup, Chicken Fajita Taco, Vegetarian Tostella and Vegetarian Black Bean Burrito.

2010 marked IHOP’s launch of 600-calorie-and-under “Simple & Fit” menu items, marked with a green icon. Many use egg substitutes, include more fresh fruit and vegetables, and offer sandwiches paired with fresh fruit for lunch. The family-dining chain also replaced french fries with fresh fruit on the “Just for Kids” menu.

Ruby Tuesday’s “Fit & Trim” selections list calorie contents and include petite lunch salads with grilled protein choices at 248 to 436 calories. The line also includes a 7-ounce petite sirloin with 561 calories for $11.99 and and a 9-ounce top sirloin with 651 calories for $13.99.

It’s worth noting that Ruby Tuesday isn’t downsizing its portion sizes across the board, as it did in 2004, with poor results. Rather, this chain and a few other early adapters are adding smaller or more health-minded choices to the menu mix, allowing customers to opt in or out of smaller portions and calorie-counting.

Calling this trend “healthy by association” doesn’t connote huge leaps forward in more-healthful dining choices, and often, it doesn’t take much to earn a healthy halo; less fried food and more yogurt and oatmeal are winning equations.

Overall, as restaurants continue to make these additions and, sometimes, deletions in 2011, they will be doing more to position themselves as being on the side of the consumer’s health.

There are several good reasons for restaurant operators to continue making small BFY changes to menus. Consumers enjoy visiting restaurants that are perceived as healthy because these venues make them feel good about themselves and their meal choices. Even if diners don’t opt for the healthiest item on the menu, they want to feel that they’re eating at an establishment that serves inherently BFY foods.

Often, the healthy halos around BFY menu options overshadow the less-than- healthful options. For instance, Jason’s Deli still offers plenty of mayonnaise and cheese, but consumers believe they’re already making a healthier choice by visiting Jason’s over another fast-casual option, especially one that relies on fryers for most food preparation.

By making these little tweaks, operators are taking more of an all-things-to-all-people approach to menu offerings, from the super-indulgent specials to the daily whole-wheat bread. Smart operators will see the calorie-count mandates as an opportunity to revamp menus with all diners in mind.


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