Web Exclusive | July 2011 | By Daniel P. Smith

Some ‘LiveWell’ While Most Wait

McDonald’s is absent from the NRA’s “Kids LiveWell” initiative, but members are confident the program will still boost their kids’ menus.

Restaurant brands participating in the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) recently announced “Kids LiveWell” initiative are confident that the health-infused measure will help boost their kids’ offerings, business, and profile. But most quick-service brands remain in wait-and-see mode.

In its rookie run, “Kids LiveWell” claims the voluntary participation of 19 restaurant brands representing more than 15,000 locations, including quick-service spots such as Au Bon Pain, Burger King, Burgerville, Corner Bakery Café, El Pollo Loco, and zpizza.

One very glaring absentee from the list of participants, however, is the king of quick service itself: McDonald’s.

Although the company says it has worked to advance the discussion of nutrition awareness and to provide more balanced menu options, particularly for its youngest guests, the quick-service leader has postponed—but not ruled out—participation in the “Kids LiveWell” initiative.

“We will evaluate participation in this program in the future,” McDonald’s USA spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling says.

While fashioning itself a healthy and active lifestyle brand, Jamba Juice is another company that did not explore joining the initial run of the “Kids LiveWell” program. Nevertheless, Jamba Juice chief marketing officer Susan Shields says, the initiative highlights a growing industry movement toward healthy options.

“We are pleased to see the response and commitment that our peers in the restaurant industry are providing to children and commend the NRA for its support of this important initiative,” Shields says.

Participation from companies like McDonald’s and Jamba Juice would have provided “Kids LiveWell” an immeasurable boost, but its inaugural members say the program will only gain momentum as guests demand more healthy options for children in the convenience- and value-driven quick-service sector.

“Given that some large brands are participating right out of the gate, it should lead to greater recognition and [brand] participation down the line,” says zpizza vice president of training Brandi Babb.

Last week, the NRA teamed with California-based Healthy Dining to launch “Kids LiveWell,” a first-of-its-kind nationwide initiative arming parents and children with accessible information on healthy menu options at various restaurants.

All restaurants participating in the launch will offer and promote a selection of menu items meeting the “Kids LiveWell” criteria, which include an increased focus on fruits and veggies, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy while downplaying unhealthy fats, sodium, and sugars.

“‘Kids LiveWell’ positions us to be a part of the solution, which is a win-win for our guests and our restaurants.”

Many of the program’s initial members claim existing relationships with Healthy Dining, ties that advanced their participation. Now participating restaurants can add the “Kids LiveWell” icon to denote qualifying items on their menus.

For the 400-unit El Pollo Loco chain, participation in the “Kids LiveWell” program allows the eatery to heighten the visibility of its menu to a key audience: money-wielding parents concerned about their children’s health.

El Pollo Loco’s participation demanded some work, being among the first participants in the program was a no-brainer, says Julie Weeks, the company’s vice president of communications.

To meet the “Kids LiveWell” criteria, El Pollo Loco had to revisit some of its menu combinations. Whereas the grilled chicken leg kids’ meal included a side and kids’ drink, it now has vegetables and pinto beans, a move to comply with the initiative’s two-veggies rule. The company is in the process of developing a new kids’ menu and exploring various avenues to weave in the “Kids LiveWell” guidelines.

“‘Kids LiveWell’ positions us to be a part of the solution, which is a win-win for our guests and our restaurants,” Weeks says. “We’re proud of the healthy offerings we have and want to highlight them.”

As youth become a more important piece of business at Corner Bakery Café, company leaders have continued to promote healthy kids offerings at the chain’s 119 eateries. Joining the “Kids LiveWell” program continues the brand’s kid-friendly, health-centric movement and places the restaurant in a more positive light, says Corner Bakery Café’s senior vice president of marketing Diana Hovey.

“More often, families are heading out to a restaurant and want choice and variety alongside taste and health. Being a part of the ‘Kids LiveWell’ initiative allows us to showcase what we offer in a user-friendly format that benefits guests and the restaurant,” Hovey says.

Although some nutritionists charge that the “Kids LiveWell” initiative’s 600-calorie standard and levels of sodium and sugar remain too generous, the immediate public response for healthier options and menu clarity appears popular.

“Ultimately, the program will be positively received because it gives restaurants an opportunity to highlight healthy items to those looking for them,” says El Pollo’s Weeks. “That can really help business.”