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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.”
The program (or something similar) might extend to franchisees, Farid says, giving the company the opportunity to put a healthful message in front of five or six employees at each of more than 1,000 locations. “Even if we just made a difference with those five or six, that’s five or six thousand people you help,” he says. “And how many people do they touch? We need to get the message across, we need to turn around and do a better job of focusing on something that is very, very important to the consumer.”
Diane Hart, president of the National Association for Health and Fitness, says quick-service companies have several tools at their disposal to create positive change within their employee base. She says operators should consider starting with a company-wide “wellness committee” to develop programs and resources for the organization, and then get their employees on board with simple activities at first, like taking small walks around the building during the day.
Companies might also consider setting up peer groups within the organization to foster health mentorship or installing posters in the back office that remind employees of healthy activities, Hart says.
“Above all, it needs senior-level support. It’s got to be top down,” she says. “They’ve got to see that your CEO is buying into this. And I am seeing more and more smaller companies have in their mission statement to create a culture of wellness in the workplace.”
Education is another great tool to help employees get on track with their health, Hart says. She says brands can take advantage of (often free) speakers and consultants from health organizations that can come in to a company and clear up any mixed messages people have heard about health and wellbeing.
These educational components are especially important in the quick-service industry, she says.
“When you’re dealing with a transient workforce, or even a younger workforce, the educational component … is critical,” Hart says. “They can carry that education forward with them.”
Operators might also consider offering their employees incentives to lose weight and focus on health, Hart says. For example, premium parking spots or gift cards could be offered to the employee who loses the most weight within a certain month, she says.
While Baun says incentives can indeed get a company pointed in the right direction when it comes to health—even going so far as saying that brands might consider structuring health benefits around certain health goals—he cautions that incentives can’t be the only way brands inspire employees to care more about their health.
“Incentives might help a person step up to learn how to change their behavior; they might even help a person step up to lose the first 25 pounds,” he says. “But what we’re talking about is sustained change, and you can’t pay a person enough to sustain change.”
Of course, companies like Fresh To Order, Freshëns, and Edible Arrangements are founded on principles that include health and wellbeing at their core. But the experts say national quick-serve brands can also develop a company culture that encourages a healthy lifestyle.
Hart says these national companies could work with franchisees and store managers to establish programs at the community level, like participating in awareness walks, 5ks, or even gardening activities.
“To me, it’s just easier when you break it down … with a representative from each state,” she says. “So the smaller, the better. You just take little bites of the big culture that you’re trying to achieve.”
As someone who oversees an international system, Farid says he thinks major quick-service brands can make permanent change—so long as they get the ball rolling. “Once the shift starts, it will catch on and just keep getting better and better, as long as the people are genuine,” he says. “Don’t do it for the sake of doing it, be genuine. Truly believe in it, then stick to it. And don’t give up on it because it’s just a marketing thing.”
The results of such a strategy don’t just include healthier employees. The CDC’s Lang writes in his e-mail that a healthy culture leads to more engaged employees, lower health-care costs, and improved productivity.
Hart says healthy workplace programs make for healthier and happier employees, which helps customers make healthier menu decisions. But she also says these steps can create a competitive position for any quick serve that is serious about change.
“You’re uplifting your organization, showing it’s a conscious organization, that you’re set apart from other organizations because you really do care for your employees,” she says. “They’re the front line. They’re the boots on the ground. … You’re never going to convince everyone. But if you start this wave of health promotion, you’ll be surprised at the great results you’ll see.”
Baun reminds that change isn’t going to happen unless leaders in the industry commit to embedding health and wellbeing at every level of the organization.
“I think the fast-food industry has to step it up and make it a value system within their own company,” Baun says. “I think when they do that, the changes they make won’t just be kind of peripheral changes, or cosmetic changes, but I think they’ll be real changes. They’ll be changes that will sustain the idea to make healthier choices easy. That will have a huge impact on everyone that has to buy food.”