The limited-service restaurant industry is cashing in on diners’ New Year’s resolutions for healthy eating in a big way. At bagel concept Einstein Bros. Bagels, for example, January 1 marked renewed focus on the brand’s Smart Choices menu, which boasts a selection of better-for-you alternatives with less than 350 calories and 15 grams of fat.

“Everybody starts off the new year looking to slim down a little bit after the holidays,” says Jeff O'Neill, president and CEO of Einstein Noah Restaurant Group. “We’ve got our new Thintastic bagels that have 35 percent fewer calories compared to a regular bagel.”

The new bagels, which come in three flavors—plain, whole wheat, and everything—were in development for about 18 months, O'Neill says. “It sounds a little odd, but what we wanted to do is get the fewer calories and ensure it still had the chewy texture of a bagel,” he says.

All three Thintastic bagels are available as alternatives for the brand’s lineup of breakfast and deli sandwiches and also inspired six new offerings, four of which are part of the Smart Choices menu. The Southwest Turkey-Sausage features egg whites, turkey sausage, plain cream cheese, Pepper Jack cheese, and tomatillo salsa. The Asparagus, Mushroom & Swiss joins the breakfast lineup on the Smart Choices menu, and available for lunch are the new Tuscan Chicken Pesto and Bagel Thin Club sandwiches, the latter of which is made with turkey, bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and roasted tomato spread served on a plain Thintastic bagel.

O'Neill says he expects the new menu items to be popular with Einstein’s consumers and to compete with brand staples like the Nova Lox & Bagel, which he says has a healthy halo of its own.

“It’s a classic Jewish deli product that’s gone mainstream very rapidly,” O'Neill says. “The reason for that is that people know salmon is packed with omega-3, which is really good for you. It’s heart-healthy and has 24 grams of protein.”

Adding to its protein-rich menu options, Einstein also launched a new Greek Yogurt Parfait made with Dannon Oikos Greek yogurt, an ingredient that wasn’t previously available.

O'Neill says the menu additions reflect growing consumer expectations for healthy alternatives, especially in the morning daypart. “Research is pretty compelling that breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” he says. “When people start their day off with a good breakfast, they set themselves up for a better day.”

Several other brands with big breakfast business are similarly rolling out healthier morning meals: Starbucks introduced Hearty Blueberry Oatmeal that offers seven grams of protein and six grams of fiber in a 280-calorie bowl. On January 12, the brand is expected to introduce more low-calorie panini sandwiches and on-the-go snacks.

Outside of the morning daypart, a few Mexican quick serves are jumping aboard the health-focused bandwagon. Del Taco launched a new line of lean turkey tacos with 33 percent less fat than beef options. Fire-grilled chicken chain El Pollo Loco rung in the new year with five new meals with less than 500 calories. The Mango Grilled Tostada, Black Bean Bowl, Avocado Salad, Avocado Burrito, and Mango Taco Plate provide healthful alternatives to diners.

And even though consumers’ New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy may fall to the wayside, interest in such alternatives won’t.

For Einstein, the renewed focus on the Smart Choices menu will continue throughout the year, O'Neill says. “When guests come in and see that Smart Choices menu, they know we’re really committed to innovating, and that’s what they want to see.”

By Tamara Omazic

Breakfast, Menu Innovations, News, Del Taco, Einstein Bros. Bagels, El Pollo Loco, Starbucks