Web Exclusive | March 2015 | By Thomas Hill

The Whole-Grain Way

Operators promote whole-grain foods on Whole Grains Sampling Day.
Quick service restaurant chains promote whole grain menu items.
As part of Whole Grains Sampling Day, the Whole Grains Council is offering promotional materials to help operators showcase the ingredients. image used with permission.

Whole-grain products are no longer a niche part of the foodservice industry. Seventy-two percent of consumers want more whole-grain products from restaurants, according to a 2014 International Food Information Council survey. And some 10,000 food items with the whole-grain stamp brought in $9 billion worth of sales in 42 countries in the year ending October 2014, according to data from market research firm SPINS.

Now whole-grain supporters are trying to get quick-serve customers to be more familiar with the foods. The Whole Grains Council, a program of the Oldways Preservation Trust, is celebrating the fourth Whole Grains Sampling Day on April 1. This nationwide event partners with health professionals, whole-grain food manufacturers, and the foodservice industry to introduce customers to whole grains using social media, in-store brochures, posters, and, of course, whole-grain food samples.

Kelly Toups, program manager of the Boston-based Whole Grains Council, says developing eye-catching whole-grain choices is essential for the quick-service industry today as more customers incorporate whole grains into their diet. And Whole Grains Sampling Day, she adds, is a great way to increase whole-grain awareness among customers.

“From the quick-service perspective, there’s a lot of different ways that these restaurants could get involved,” Toups says. “The biggest ways that quick-service restaurants in particular have been involved is through coupons [and] social media.”

Several limited-service brands are participating in Whole Grains Sampling Day. McDonald's USA is planning to tweet about menu items made with whole grains, such as the Egg White Delight and Fruit & Maple Oatmeal. Panda Express will use social media to promote its steamed brown rice.

Carlsbad, California–based Rubio’s plans to offer guests $1 off any two-taco plate served on stone-ground corn tortillas or burrito served on whole-grain tortilla.

“For the quick-service industry, it’s relatively easy to get that whole-grain option. They just have to make customers aware of it and show them that it tastes good.”

“We’ve found that our customers enjoy healthier options and the ability to choose from more than one type of tortilla,” says Ralph Rubio, cofounder of Rubio’s Restaurants Inc., via e-mail. “In addition to featuring stone-ground corn tortillas on most of our tacos, we offer guests the option to substitute a whole-grain tortilla on any of our burritos as a replacement for flour tortillas.” 

Subway is inviting bloggers and “health influencers” to one of its Boston-area stores to share whole-grain samples and to discuss its commitment to including whole grains in more of its products. Nationally, the brand will use Twitter and Facebook to reach out to customers with whole-grain education and to encourage customers to visit local stores on Whole Grains Sampling Day.

Lanette Kovachi, dietitian for Subway, believes quick-service restaurants can use the power of association to connect with customers and help them better recognize whole-grain options. It’s something the grocery-store industry has thrived on, she says. “One thing that definitely helps is using the whole-grain stamp,” she says. “I think that symbol is becoming more and more recognized as we see it in the bread aisle on lots of different breads.”

Subway highlights its whole-grain bread options at customers’ point of purchase. A sign details bread options like the 9-Grain Wheat and 9-Grain Honey Oat breads. Each is identified with the whole-grain stamp and lists what whole grains it contains.

Toups points to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and its fast-casual spinoff, Pei Wei Asian Market, as having a simple yet effective tactic of highlighting whole grains: Employees give diners the option of brown or white rice. She says the chain reported brown rice selling 45 percent of the time with this technique.

“It’s really trying to get more people to choose that option, or to even let people know that it’s available and really get the excitement there,” Toups says.

For quick-service restaurants that don’t yet offer whole grains, Toups says, there are plenty of time-conscious options that exist. Quinoa, for example, does not take much time to cook. Other whole grains she suggests operators could consider include farro, amaranth, millet, sorghum, barley, and teff. Introducing a new whole grain such as teff, she says, gives operators an opportunity to add global foods to the menu. Teff is traditionally used in Ethiopian cuisine, she says.

“For [the quick-service industry], it’s relatively easy to get that [whole-grain] option,” Kovachi says. “They just have to make customers aware of it and show them that it tastes good.”

Brandon O’Dell, owner of O’Dell Restaurant Consulting, believes that some quick serves have an easier time with whole-grain offerings than others based on their menu category. Subway, for example, has an easy entry point with its deli sandwiches. But menuing and promoting whole grains helps to give quick-serve brands a healthier overall image.

“It’s a lot healthier option than eating a quarter pound or third pound of hamburger and french fries somewhere,” O’Dell says.

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