It’s the conundrum befuddling limited-service restaurant operators the world over: How do you answer consumer demand for healthier menu items when so many customers are scared away by health-food claims? How do you help fight off the nation’s obesity epidemic when the entire business is designed around tasty, indulgent menu options?
For years, operators have been on a quest to find that holy grail of menu development: items that are both tasty and healthful. Plenty of veggie burgers, oven-baked fries, and not-so-enticing salads have fallen by the wayside in this quest. But the last few years have shown some real progress, especially in the limited-service segment. Fueled by competition from established and emerging fast-casual brands and spurred on by a cultural shift in how consumers and operators define “better-for-you” eating, operators may be closer than ever to menuing that holy grail.
Defining healthy dining
For some diners, healthy dining is a matter of life and death. Many are watching sodium levels to reduce their risk of heart disease. Others need to monitor sugar and carbs to regulate diabetes. On the other end of the spectrum, some health-minded customers are opting for a juice cleanse for weight control or incorporating probiotics because they heard in the media they were good for the body.
Between these two extremes is a range of health needs and wants fueled by terms like antibiotic-free, grass-fed, fresh, and natural that diners have been told are critical to good eating habits. Finding the right menu descriptors, experts say, can be part of the challenge in figuring out which healthy menu items entice customers.
“We stay away from the healthy claim,” says Katherine Bengston, nutrition manager at Panera Bread. “Customers have a wide variety of nutritional goals and special diets, so there is no way to serve all their needs in a special menu.”
Avoiding diet-related words makes sense. Research published in a July 2013 Healthy Dining Trends report from Chicago-based market researcher Mintel showed that nutritional claims such as fat-free, low-fat, and low-carb were all in sharp decline between 2012 and 2013. This downward trend indicated that menu developers were responding to consumers’ need to eat well without depriving themselves of tasty ingredients, according to Mintel.
Several operators have attempted to separate heart-healthy and lower-calorie items into special menu sections, but newer strategies, like Panera Bread’s, put diners in the driver’s seat when it comes to making healthful choices.
“We make nutrition and allergen information available,” Bengston says. “We were the first chain to post calories on the menu. We believe if you give people information and leave choices up to customers, they can modify the menu as they want.”
For those operators looking to separate healthier items from the rest of the menu, a secret, or unpublished, menu is one option to consider. Panera Bread offers a Power Menu that started as a “secret” social media experiment and was such a hit that the chain went public with it. The menu features six protein-heavy power bowls packed with complex carbohydrates that come from vegetables, not starches. These bowls are Paleo-friendly, gluten free, and low calorie, but those factors are not emphasized on the menu. Instead, by using the word Power and highlighting premium ingredients like grass-fed steak, seasonal vegetables, and “all-natural eggs, freshly cracked every morning,” Panera gives these bowls broad appeal.
Brad Haley, chief marketing officer at CKE, parent company to Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, says a separate menu strategy is at play in the brands’ recent “Other Side” advertising campaign. Many fast-food places have secret menus reserved for indulgent versions of their standard menu, he says, but with Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s known for over-the-top indulgence, the brands developed a “not-so-secret ‘Other Side’ menu to call attention to our menu items that not only fill you up and taste great, but also provide options for guests looking to trim calories, carbs, or fat,” he says.
Haley stresses that items on the “Other Side” menu have been around for a while. For example, the menu features the Charbroiled Turkey Burgers, which were launched three years ago and were an industry first. “We’re just presenting them in a new and consolidated way to generate more awareness about our healthier options,” Haley says.
To promote the “Other Side” menu, CKE rolled out ads and a new website with backward copy. The campaign created a lot of buzz in popular media and kept with the quirky branding that Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are known for.
Betsy Craig, founder of MenuTrinfo, a Fort Collins, Colorado–based business that offers nutritional analysis and food-safety training for commercial and non-commercial foodservice, says flavor profile, menu transparency, and understanding the customer make the difference between better-for-you items that sell briskly and those that hardly sell at all.
“If a menu item is too far from the rest of a restaurant’s menu and brand, then the diner has trouble reconciling that in their minds,” Craig says.
This sentiment is shared by Zach Calkins, partner at Food and Drink Resources (FDR), a custom product and menu development firm based in Centennial, Colorado. “Instead of messing with the products that your brands are built on, know what’s important to your customers and be sure to talk about what you are doing right,” he says. “Salads may not drive traffic, but they have come a long way, and having them on the menu has a positive impact.”
Better begets better
As CKE’s “Other Side” menu shows, a broader definition of health food allows the industry to talk less about “bad foods” that should be avoided and more about the positive attributes of food. Terms like premium and antibiotic-free may not scream “diet friendly,” but these terms create good feelings about food quality, the experts say.
“Flavor and taste are our first priorities and drive all menu development,” Panera’s Bengston says. “This goes hand-in-hand with quality ingredients. We found that the best-tasting chicken was all natural and antibiotic free, so we’ve been using it for 10 years. Good food is better for the food system [and] better for people, and high quality means better nutrition.”