It’s the first week of classes, and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are bustling through Lenoir Hall, home to a dining hall and food court that feed many of the 30,000 Tar Heels on campus.
Tucked into a remote corner of Lenoir, just a short flight of stairs down from quick-serve mainstays like Subway and Chick-fil-A, bright lights and vibrant colors mark the grand opening of fro-yo and crepe concept Freshëns. Students line up to stare at the dynamic LED menuboards with dancing fresh fruit across their screens. A touch-screen kiosk at the order station lets curious consumers explore menu items’ nutritional profiles.
The warm colors and nutritional transparency all play into Freshëns’ branding as a healthy-lifestyle brand, says president and CEO John Stern, just as much as the healthier menu options do.
But Stern says there’s another critical component to backing up the brand’s slogan, “Healthy Eating, Better Living,” at Lenoir Hall and its other 750 or so locations across the U.S.
“I think you have to walk the walk and talk the talk,” Stern says. “If you choose to position your brand in that way, I think you have to be pretty honest in the choices you make personally. If you’re talking healthy and then you’re going out and eating fried chicken four days a week, that’s probably not aligning your personal goals with the goals of the company. … If you’re sincere in your efforts and your endeavors about making products that are better for you and better for your guests, then I think that also rubs off on the employees of the company.”
Many quick-service companies are starting to share Stern’s sentiment that brands should promote a healthy mindset not just in the menu, but also in the C-suite, in each store’s crew, and everywhere in between.
Committing to a healthy organization could be the missing piece in quick-service restaurants’ fight against obesity, a fight that is increasingly essential. Not only are one in three adults and one in six kids today obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but also the majority of the population in all 50 states is at least overweight.
While the efforts to improve quick-serve menus, either by lowering unhealthy content like sodium or by adding more fresh fruits and vegetables, are commendable, experts say taking the message deeper could be essential to helping customers take control of their own health.
“In my mind, that means that if the fast-food industry really is going to make a difference, then they just can’t go and hire … a big name that comes in and says you’ve got to do more salads, or hire a healthy chef that creates this other side of the menu,” says William Baun, wellness officer for MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and president of the National Wellness Institute. “It becomes a product line, it doesn’t become part of their culture. If the fast-food industry is really going to make a difference, then they’ve got to buy into this.”
Each company’s employee base might be the most powerful tool in the efforts to “buy into this.” The restaurant industry has nearly 13 million employees, according to the National Restaurant Association. More than 4 million of those work in quick service.
Jason Lang, who heads the CDC’s Worksite Health Programs, says in an e-mail to QSR that instilling a healthy mindset in the work environment could have a tremendous impact on the obesity crisis.
“Building a culture of health involves all levels of the organization and establishes the workplace health program as a routine part of business operations aligned with overall business goals,” Lang writes. “Instilling a culture of health is very important in changing social norms and sustaining the program over time, because it becomes an integral part of day-to-day operations.”
Some newer quick-service brands have had the foresight to launch their concepts with healthy messaging at the core, affording them the ability to incorporate wellbeing in everything they do. Fresh To Order is one of those brands. The nine-unit, Atlanta-based fast casual has a better-for-you menu and kiosks that help customers make informed decisions. It also markets itself in local health clubs through promotions or even food samples.
But Pierre Panos, CEO of Fresh To Order, says the company couldn’t afford to present itself to customers as a healthy brand without making sure its managers and other employees were healthy themselves. So the company is in the process of launching a competition within the organization to encourage exercise and wellbeing.
“You’ve got to very careful how much you intrude in [employees’] lifestyle, but we asked them and they agreed to do it,” Panos says. “We didn’t just say, ‘Hey, some of you guys are overweight, we’re going to do this.’ We talked about it, they liked the idea, and we’re going to go ahead and do it.”
Panos says that when store employees see managers committed to a health program, it “trickles down to them” and permeates through the organization. He adds that this eventually extends even to the customers.
“If a cashier is going to recommend something, and they know the way we are, what our culture is, and what Fresh To Order stands for, they’re going to recommend something good for you,” he says. “So I think it reinforces everything else.”
The ways different quick-serve brands get their employees on board with the health movement varies. At Freshëns, employees are encouraged to take regular walks and get some fresh air, Stern says, and the corporate office holds regular yoga classes.
Similar to Fresh To Order, Edible Arrangements offered a competition for its employees this year that challenged them to lose weight and recognized top achievers. Tariq Farid, CEO of Edible Arrangements, says the “Biggest Fruit Loser” competition saw serious results in the corporate office.
“It’s amazing; I’ve seen people in our office get up at lunch time and just be walking around the building,” Farid says. “I hadn’t seen that before. And they’re encouraging each other to eat healthy and showing off the progress they’ve made.”