Health | April 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Extra Mile

Recognizing the people and brands that have gone above and beyond in the quest to make America healthier.

Sharky's CEO Steven Paperno built a healthy based fast casual concept.
Sharky's CEO Steven Paperno hopes to grow his health-based fast casual nationwide. Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill
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There’s been no shortage of foodservice professionals who are striving to do right by their customers in the health department. Whether it’s brands offering healthier menu items or executives practicing what they preach about nutrition, the industry is coming together to bring real change to the way Americans eat and live.

Some, however, are going above and beyond all expectations in the fight against obesity. QSR asked readers to nominate people and brands in five categories—Menu/R&D, Marketing/Promotions, C-Suite, Franchisees/Local Community, and Suppliers/Producers—who they think have done the best job promoting a healthy, active lifestyle.

From dozens of submissions, these five stood out as some of the best in health and nutrition.

Menu/R&D:

Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill

Mexican fast-casual concepts don’t always have the greatest reputation for health. Choosing among the tortillas, toppings, sauces, and proteins, customers can easily build their own calorie-stuffed burritos, tacos, or even salads.

Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill is out to change that reputation. The Westlake Village, California–based brand is a farm-to-table concept with 20 locations and three more opening this year. While the brand still offers traditional Mexican favorites like burritos, quesadillas, and enchiladas, it’s the high-quality ingredients that help make it a healthy choice for California diners.

Steven Paperno, CEO and founder of Sharky’s, says processed foods bear the brunt of the blame for the nation’s obesity problems.

“Is sugar bad for you? Well, in the old days, it was sugar cane, and sugar cane is what sugar is derived from. You can have a stock of sugar cane, and it would take you forever to eat it,” Paperno says. “Now, what we’ve done is process that whole sugar cane into a condensed format that is used in every single food product, and you’re probably eating a whole stock of sugar cane in one sitting.”

At Sharky’s, the focus is on pure, natural ingredients. The brand uses organic tofu, beans, and rice; trans fat–free cooking oils; GMO-free corn; wild-caught fish; 100 percent natural chicken breast and Angus beef, without hormones or preservatives; and locally grown, organic baby kale, baby spinach, sweet baby greens, and Romaine lettuce.

Paperno says these ingredients cost more, but that Sharky’s builds the mark-up into menu prices. Despite this premium—burritos run about $7–$8, while a plate with two sides is around $11–$13—he says customers keep coming back for more of what he believes is fine-dining food in a quick-service setting.

“We’re not the cheapest game in town,” he says. “We can’t compete with the Taco Bells. We feel that people will pay for something that is good for them and that they love the taste of.”

Paperno, who founded Sharky’s in 1992, grew up in his parents’ delicatessen and has been passionate about health since he was a kid. That passion has extended beyond implementing a healthy Sharky’s menu; Paperno is on a mission to educate consumers about the importance of nutrition, from kids—Sharky’s has a healthy kids’ menu—on up.

“Everybody associates diet with weight. The challenge is our cells and our body deserve to be fed really good nutritional ingredients that support our immune system and support our bodies,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be how much weight I have to lose or gain. It’s supposed to be about nutrition. … When your immune system is up and working properly, most likely you will lose weight.”

Marketing/Promotions:

Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill

In summer 2012, Denver-based Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill was enjoying its fifth year in business selling healthier pitas, plates, and platters of Mediterranean-influenced meals.

But while the company had worked hard to incorporate its healthy message into social media, local-store marketing, and other communications channels, executives wanted to try something a little more attention grabbing.

“We were looking for a promotion that would drive excitement and energy and talk a lot about those brand attributes with our health, and how we have both the Mediterranean diet and we have specialty items that can fit into everyone’s everyday life,” says Cheryl Cassaly, director of marketing at Garbanzo.

Enter the Bean Tube Experiment.

Garbanzo teamed up with LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit organization, on the Experiment, which placed six-foot clusters of garbanzo bean–filled tubes around Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins. Each tube included a healthy message, such as “Colorado’s obesity rate has jumped from 19 percent to 22 percent. If Coloradoans jumped instead, these stats would reduce,” and a QR code that directed people to a healthy living microsite sponsored by Garbanzo and LiveWell Colorado.

The QR codes also provided deals for healthier fare at Garbanzo, giving customers reason to search for all of the bean-filled tubes.

“We really wanted to drive education and awareness outside of our four walls in a very unique manner that would actually have people question, What in the world is that thing?” Cassaly says. “They can go over and they can really interact with it.”

Cassaly says the microsite received more than 1,000 page views during the campaign, and the average visitor logged a healthy two-minutes-plus on the site.

“It’s an exciting way to work with people and fit into their lives, and we wanted to make sure that it was seen and very much experienced,” she says of the Bean Tube Experiment.