The Skinny on Healthy Restaurant Eating

Get this –low calorie food is actually getting people through the door – in droves.


The Skinny on Healthy Restaurant Eating

“No one’s ever said low fat food is yummy.” Heard that before? Well it turns out that lower-calorie food and beverages isn’t just good for guests, but it’s also making a healthier bottom line for restaurants in the US.

In a new report from the Hudson Institute, that studied 21 of the US’s largest full-service and quick-service chains between 2006 and 2011, the organisation found that restaurants serving lower-calorie foods and drinks had better sales growth, larger increases in consumer traffic, and stronger gains in total servings than chains with less low-calorie options.

By the numbers

The report found that in 17 of the 21 chains, lower-calorie foods and beverages (defined as no more than 500 calories for a main course, 50 or fewer for a beverage, and 150 or less for a side, starter or dessert) outperformed those that were not lower-calorie.

“Those restaurants saw a 5,5% increase in same-store sales compared with a 5,5% decline among chains selling fewer low-calorie servings, as well as a 10,9% growth in customer traffic versus a 14,7% decline in traffic at restaurants less committed to low calorie offerings,” explains Hank Cardello, lead author of the report and director of the Hudson Institute’s Obesity Solutions Initiative.

Cardello’s explanation of the increase isn’t unique to the US either, with increasing global awareness on healthy eating and lifestyle, he says consumers are hungry for restaurant meals that won’t have a negative impact on their bodies and health. “Restaurants ignoring this fact are losing out to those that recognise its importance.”

No fat, no fun…

In a bid to dispel the pervasive believe that low fat is no fun to eat, Cardello explains that slimming down food and beverage items shouldn’t be about demonising particular dishes or ingredients in them. “Sometimes reducing the caloric footprint is as simple as controlling the portion size of a favourite food. Using bold ingredients like chili or mango salsa instead of cream or butter can also keep items lower in fat, saturated fat and calories.”

The report also states that restaurants that offered lighter dishes, but tucked them away on a corner of the menu like an afterthought, are now making them front and centre. “Items that are less than 600 calories are being specially marked on menus, and healthy hints embedded on the page suggesting ‘hold the butter or dressing’ and ‘try a side of salad over fries’ are helping consumers lighten up their choices.”

Bringing flavour and fun into low fat

Eating healthily should be about more than cutting calories though, and US franchise, Denny’s Corporation, is leading the way. “Denny’s menu has coloured icons next to items that are higher in protein and fibre, and lower in fat and calories. A move positively received by consumers,” says Cardello.

Denny’s also introduced “build-your-own Grand Slam”, which is their cooked breakfast offering. “We’re seeing a lot of chatter on Facebook and Twitter saying guests are surprised they can mix and match ingredients 250 ways to create Grand Slams that have 550 calories or less,” Cardello says.

In short

“For today’s consumers, it’s not about going on a diet,” Cardello says. “It’s about having a much higher level of nutritional intelligence and having the opportunity to make more healthful choices. Diners are not willing to accept something dry and bland for the sake of cutting calories. There is now huge opportunity in the food industry to improve profit margins on smaller portion items, because consumers are coming to understand that the right size, at the right price, is what really makes something good value.”

Tracy Lee Nicol
About the Author
Tracy-Lee Nicol is the managing editor of Franchise Zone Magazine and deputy editor of Entrepreneur Magazine. She studied her Masters degree in Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University and spent the next two years working and travelling in Asia. Her love of people, business and teaching is reflected in telling the stories of entrepreneurs, franchisees and franchisors, inspiring others to take the leap to being their own boss and bringing about positive change in South Africa.

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