Ask a typical male heavy fast-food user what would make his favorite pepperoni pizza even better, and it’s a reasonably good bet he’ll tell you “more”: more pepperoni, more cheese, and a bigger, thicker crust. Ask him what he’s looking for in a burger, and you’ll likely hear something similar: more toppings, bigger patty, more bacon, extra cheese, heavy condiments, and a hefty bun.
For generations now, some of the quick-service world’s most important consumers have viewed value as a function of size and quantity. But volume and excellence aren’t the same things, and American consumers have learned this the hard way; by some estimates, more than half of the U.S. population is either overweight or obese. The extensive media attention that’s been lavished on the so-called “obesity epidemic” has almost certainly created broader awareness of the health risks associated with unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyles. And, perhaps as a result, the Boston Medical Center, an academic hospital affiliated with Boston University, has noted that each year an estimated 45 million Americans go on a diet, in the process spending an astonishing $33 billion annually on weight-loss products.
It’s not surprising, then, that these dieting dollars are having a big impact on restaurants. In 2012, market research firm Technomic reported that restaurant soup and salad sales climbed dramatically in the preceding two years. And the firm’s latest “Left Side of the Menu” report noted that more than two-fifths of respondents to a recent survey reported visiting certain restaurants specifically because they enjoyed the soup and salad offerings. So, what, exactly, would it mean for quick-service brands to go “light”? Here are a few interpretations:
Fewer calories. Just about everyone acknowledges that eating lighter generally means eating fewer calories, and one of the quickest and easiest ways to remove calories from menu items is to reduce the amount of fat and carbohydrates they contain. Years ago, Bruce Aidells wanted to see what would happen if he replaced the pork fat in sausage with chicken and apples. Turns out he succeeded in creating links with loads of flavor and a comparable texture. It’s a tried-and-true technique that can work brilliantly with the right substitutions.
Less protein. In much of the rest of the world, meals are typically constructed like stir-fries, with vegetables and starches forming the bulk of the bowl or plate and protein used sparingly for texture, added flavor, and nutritional value. In the U.S., we’ve turned that formula on its ear, building our meals around ever-larger servings of protein and relegating starches and vegetables to supporting roles. To some extent, this is changing—consider the mass popularity of chopped salads—but continuing to de-emphasize protein in favor of the more colorful items on the plate is one way to lighten up a meal.
Less (and better) fat. Atkins advocates and South Beach loyalists helped to ratchet down the anti-fat fervor that gripped America in the 1990s. Their view of fat’s role in a balanced diet helped restore some needed balance to the national conversation on healthy eating. Clearly, though, there are ways to remove some of the excessive fat from meals, or from specific menu items, without compromising on quality or overall flavor. Reducing the amount of oil in salad dressing, cutting back on the amount of cheese on the average pizza, frying in ways that prevent excessive oil absorption—efforts like these can make a significant difference in items’ real and perceived “lightness.”
Smaller portion options. As an increasing number of major cities require their foodservice establishments to post calorie counts, and as other chains do so voluntarily, it may be worthwhile for quick-serve establishments to consider adding smaller-size portions of most or all of their menu items if they haven’t done so already. Some consumers may lack the willpower to temper their intake if presented with a heaping helping of pasta, a massive sandwich, or an overstuffed burger. But they may have the restraint needed to select a smaller size. The availability of those slimmed-down portions could help draw conscientious diners to your door more often.
More fruits and veggies. Many quick-serve chains already offer apple slices instead of french fries as an explicit appeal to health-conscious consumers and parents, while others offer veggie burgers alongside the regular kind. But there are endless, less obvious ways to introduce fruits, vegetables, and legumes into everyday menu items: using fry coatings made with chickpea flour; offering sandwich breads and buns that contain dried fruit; and adding edible bean powders to baked goods or sauces, for example. The concept of “stealth health” has been with us for a while, but it still presents untapped opportunities.
Mixing and matching. As best I’m aware, no major chain has yet to offer its customers the option of a “tasting menu” akin to those often found at fine-dining establishments. And yet, a kind of quick-serve bento box or assortment containing, say, two mini cheeseburgers, two grilled chicken strips, a small salad, and a jalapeño popper or two might offer a likable alternative for traditional heavy users by substituting flavor intensity and variety for sheer quantity. The idea wouldn’t work for every chain, but I’d bet a creative menu-development team could deliver a sampler that satisfies.
In the end, the success of a lighter menu comes from consumers feeling good when they get up from the table—satisfied but not stuffed.