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    Courting Calorie Counters

  • Making it easier for customers to watch their weight can be smart business.

    McAlister’s Veggie Club and Fire Roasted Veggie Soup

    The nutritional value of limited-service restaurant food has been the topic of debate among consumers, critics, and operators for some time. Growing concerns over Americans’ high obesity levels have only heightened the debate, leading some observers to encourage increased governmental regulation of food, others to urge more focus on informed, unforced choice.

    Much of the talk has been about calories, because consuming too many of those without accompanying exercise results in additional pounds.

    Many limited-service restaurant companies have added or emphasized lower-calorie items, launched low-cal menus, or provided data to make it easier for guests to calculate the calories in their meals. Still, some local and state governments enacted regulations requiring numerous food facilities, including restaurant operators with more than 20 units, to list calories and other nutritional data for regular food items on their menus or menuboards.

    That regulation is going national as part of the Affordable Care Act. Exactly when that will occur, however, remains uncertain, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was charged with writing the regulations, has found a variety of challenges.

    “There are a number of complex issues involved,” writes FDA spokesman Arthur Whitmore in an email. The agency received more than 900 comments on the most recent proposal, and “is evaluating each comment before publishing a final rule.”

    Although restaurants don’t always like to be told what to list on their menuboards, they should still embrace low-calorie menu items, says Hank Cardello, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. “This is good business, not a moral issue,” he says.

    Cardello, who also directs the conservative think tank’s Obesity Solutions Initiative, collected data on menu-item sales at 21 big restaurant chains, including nine quick-service and fast-casual companies.

    “We were interested where the sales growth was coming over recent years,” he says. “It turns out that the growth came from the low-calorie items.”

    To be considered “low calorie” in the study, center-of-plate items were 500 or fewer calories, while sides, appetizers, and desserts had to be no more than 150 calories. Eight-ounce beverages clocked in at 50 calories or less. Those levels allow a customer to create a balanced meal that fits in with the FDA’s recommended 2,000 calorie-per-day intake, Cardello says.

    The survey found that restaurants adding low-calorie items outperformed those eateries that reduced them. For instance, same-store sales at chains adding low-cal items rose 5.5 percent from 2006 to 2011, while eateries that reduced them fell by the same percentage.

    “It shows that you have to pay attention and restructure your menu to capture these customers,” Cardello says, noting that new items, such as Burger King’s Satisfries, not only have lower calories than regular menu items, but also can boost sales.

    Despite the FDA’s delays, several limited-service restaurant companies, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, have already added calorie counts to their menuboards. McDonald’s began listing calories on menuboards in September 2012, a few months after launching its Favorites Under 400 menu.

    That menu, which highlighted popular items with 400 or fewer calories, helps guests “make an informed decision about whether a particular menu choice could fit within their individual calorie needs,” writes spokeswoman Christina Tyler in an email.

    Now that all McDonald’s in America have calorie counts on their menuboards, the 35-item Favorites Under 400 menu is only listed online.

    Calorie counting is a key part of Wendy’s smartphone application, which also allows customers to find a restaurant, pay for meals, and more. Since the app was launched two years ago, it has been downloaded nearly one million times.

    Wendy’s research indicated that many guests were interested in nutrition, and the company decided that it could do more with its menu database than just churn out a nutrition chart. The information could be baked into an informative application.

    “We have a really good product, and we don’t need to hide behind gimmicks,” says Brandon Rhoten, vice president of digital marketing for the company. “We would rather be helpful and give the consumers what they need.”

    As the Wendy’s team was developing the app, they considered more practical consumer needs. “If you want 800 calories for lunch, we can give you options. And we can do the math the other way,” Rhoten says, so a diner can build a meal and have the app count the calories.

    One meal choice with less than 500 calories is a Grilled Chicken Go Wrap, Garden Side Salad, and bottled water, totaling 470 calories. By personalizing the chicken wrap to eliminate cheese, 30 calories are removed, which lowers the meal to 440 calories. It typically takes no more than several seconds to do this on an app, making it easier than doing the math from a nutritional chart, Rhoten says. And a configured meal can be quickly saved for future reference.

    Some restaurants are creating low-cal menus with entirely new items. One of them is El Pollo Loco, which created its 5 Under 500 Calories menu with five new items made mostly from ingredients that the Costa Mesa, California–based chain was already using.

    “El Pollo Loco has always had a healthy halo because of the cooking we do and the items we have,” says Heather Gardea, executive chef. “The basic ingredients for the 5 Under 500 Calories menu were already at the restaurant, but never combined together.” Mango salsa is the only new ingredient created for the low-cal menu.

    The new dishes don’t reduce portion sizes to cut calories, Gardea says, and the 500-calorie level was selected “because that’s a substantial meal for lunch or dinner. It’s not a component of a meal, like a taco or burrito, but a full meal.” In addition to a Mango Grilled Tostada, new menu items include the Mango Taco Plate, Avocado Salad, Avocado Burrito, and Black Bean Bowl. The menu items include neither fried ingredients nor two mainstays of Mexican cooking: pinto beans and rice.

    “Pinto beans don’t have the same healthy feeling as black beans among consumers, and adding rice would make it feel heavier,” she says.