For years on end, the restaurant industry has been the scapegoat for everyone from health organizations and critics to consumers who are looking for someone—anyone—to blame for the ballooning obesity epidemic.
And because of the sheer volume of customer traffic, fast-food concepts in particular have become to go-to culprit.
“It is the one segment that touches the vast majority of the U.S. population, to some degree or another,” says Maeve Webster, director at food industry market research firm Datassential, about the quick-serve industry.
And because Americans love their fast food, Greg Allison—senior director of global brands and innovation for Famous Brands International, parent of the TCBY and Mrs. Fields brands—says the segment has “become an area of focus for organizations and consumer groups out there that are focusing on this important issue of health.”
Though some consumers are heavier users than others, Webster says it would be challenging to find an individual who hasn’t eaten at a quick serve in the last month, if not even more recently.
She adds that since the segment largely caters to those product categories that “are targeted as some of the worst offenders when it comes to obesity,”—fries, burgers, shakes, and sodas, to name a few—it’s easy to point the finger at fast food.
However, it’s tough to deny that, over the past few years, quick serves have made a Herculean effort to turn around their image as obesity-creators. Webster says that many quick-service operators have done quite a bit to offer healthier options and expand their menus to be more inclusive of items that offer consumers a healthier choice.
Take lower-sodium offerings, for example. “Many fast-food operators, whether they’re publishing it or not, have taken steps to decrease the level of sodium in their products,” Webster says. “It’s not often something that’s necessarily broadcast out there or marketed to the consumer, but they have been actually taking those kinds of steps.”
She also points to the reduction of non-fried options and other healthier preparation techniques, as well as restaurants offering burgers and sandwiches with more healthful toppings than just bacon and cheese.
“Frankly, you can’t get rid of the other [unhealthy] options because people like them and there’s no need to remove those choices,” she says. “It’s more about expanding and giving people options.”
Webster says there are several ways restaurants can give their consumers the option for healthier products, including letting guests customize the items they order; allowing them to take off or hold items, garnishes, toppings, and sauces that aren’t healthy; and offering better-for-you toppings and even carriers.
Allison adds that it’s also helpful to be on top of the innovation game when consumers ask for it. For example, TCBY recently launched the first-ever soft-serve Greek yogurt in response to consumer demands for an even healthier product from the brand.
But though it’s important to provide customers with a choice between healthy and less healthy menu options, many operators have seen that customers continue to purchase the high-calorie and high-fat options.
“When you’re talking about the U.S. population in general,” Webster says, “you get a lot more talk than you get action when it comes to eating healthier.”
However, she adds that consumers are trying to make healthier decisions when it comes to mealtime. “They might still have the burger, but maybe they won’t have the bacon on top of it. It’s more about trying to make at least a better choice than they were before.”
Even dessert brands can have a hand in ushering in healthier efforts to the quick-serve sphere, Allison says.
“When you look at TCBY, we certainly have an opportunity to stand on a soap box and say, ‘Hey, we are a healthier alternative. We are a good-for you alternative because of all of the things that make up our yogurt, from the vitamins to the probiotics to the pre-fiber.”
Allison says that in defending its efforts toward healthier products, dessert brands and other quick-serve concepts must make sure they’re being honest, transparent, and true to their brand identity, even if they aren’t a brand that’s known for healthful offerings.
“Mrs. Fields is a sweet indulgence. It’s pretty difficult to pretend to be healthy when we’ve got chocolate chips and sugar and butter,” he says. “We are who we are, and we don’t want to shy away from that.”
Instead, the brand chooses to rely on high-quality ingredients, which have their own sort of health halo in consumers’ minds.
But just because the brand doesn’t scream healthy doesn’t mean Mrs. Fields hasn’t tried that option on for size. Allison says in the past, the brand has tested both a sugar-free and gluten-free cookie in the marketplace.
Unfortunately, neither product fared well.
“The market isn’t quite there for it,” he says. “It’s kind of one of those things the consumers say they want, but then they purchase something different.”
Allison says the company is hopeful, however, that products like this will one day be accepted by the general population.
“There’s requests for those healthier options; it just hasn’t reached that tipping point to put it in our display cases and make it an everyday item yet,” he says. “But I would suspect that someday sugar-free or gluten-free … will likely find its place in a display case, as long as we don’t sacrifice quality, flavor, and taste.”
Webster echoes this sentiment, warning that flavor is the one thing that’s essential when introducing healthier menu items.
“As people have become more aware of healthier eating, I think they understand that that doesn’t mean you should trade off on taste,” she says. “Any operator who focuses on healthy products and healthy items on their menu absolutely needs to lead with flavor. If … their only competitive positioning in the marketplace is that their items are healthier and the flavors aren’t there, then they’re dead in the water. They shouldn’t even bother coming out of the gate.”
She says that this situation can be a catch-22 for operators because the more they focus on and talk about health with consumers, the more guests “begin to get a little worried about whether or not they’re going to be trading off on flavor.
“The industry’s kind of walking a fine line in defending itself and presenting the facts about the actions it’s taken without concerning their customers that the flavor and taste are going to change or be gone.”
This topic will be covered in depth at this year’s Dine America, the executive conference hosted by QSR September 12–14 in Atlanta. Visit www.DineAmerica.us  for the schedule, and register at http://dineamerica.us/registration .
By Mary Avant