When Marley Hodgson and Dan Long opened their first Mad Greens eatery in December 2004, terms like gluten-free, lactose intolerance, and vegan were not foremost in their entrepreneurial minds. These days, however, the 11-unit, Denver-based salad chain finds itself regularly contemplating and catering to such dietary restrictions.

“While we were at first singularly focused on producing a healthy product that tasted good, we’ve extended that process with a greater focus on nutrition and the most common dietary restrictions our customers have,” Hodgson says.

As consumers’ cries for transparency on the menu have grown louder, quick serves have accordingly been called to act.

“People are far more cognizant of the nutritional piece and how one’s diet and body interact,” Hodgson says. “People want to know what’s in their food.”

That desire for knowledge, combined with an array of restrictions driven by medical, health, social, or religious purposes, has forced quick serves’ hand in two ways. Not only are restaurants now called to respect consumers’ dietary needs by developing great-tasting menu items, but they’re also increasingly expected to pair those R&D efforts with direct and accessible communication, as well.

Consider Greenz, an eight-year-old fast-casual concept with three locations in Dallas. Its early success has been carried, in part, on the back of its ability to address and promote dietary restrictions. Six years ago, Greenz partnered with a local hospital nutritionist to produce a list of heart-healthy menu items. After originally promoting the items on table tents, Greenz founder Casie Caldwell produced a concise dining guide, one she placed on the Greenz website and offered in hard copy inside the restaurant.

In the years since, Caldwell has expanded the concept’s Wellness Menu Guides to include information on points-based diet plans, gluten-free, and vegan dishes.

“People were asking for nutritional data more and more,” Caldwell says. “If it was so important to customers, it was important enough for us to invest in making the information accessible.”

A similar story unfolded at Menchie’s, a self-serve frozen yogurt shop that now runs more than 230 locations around the globe. As recently as 2007, Menchie’s paid little attention to dietary restrictions. That mindset quickly shifted, though, as guest requests for specific dietary information grew.

“We could see the world changing and knew we needed to act on dietary restrictions,” Menchie’s president and CEO Amit Kleinberger says. “It soon became about expanding our offerings and making sure we were informing our customers.”

Today, Menchie’s tackles a range of dietary restrictions with yogurt products that respect gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, vegan, low-carb, kosher, or fat-free diets.

In its stores, Menchie’s displays signs above each yogurt machine with text and symbols detailing each flavor’s dietary issues. A QR code allows smartphone users swift access to additional nutritional information.

“This gives our guests the ability to easily find exactly what they need,” Kleinberger says. He adds that the brand will soon roll out more expansive visuals, including an oversized menu key in every store, to more aggressively highlight its adherence to certain dietary requirements. “Effective communication is necessary so our customers don’t have to wonder; that gives us an edge,” Kleinberger says.

Nutritional information and menu symbols identifying a product’s specific dietary requirements sit on all in-store menuboards and printed menus at Mad Greens. Additionally, the glass sneeze guard that outlines the eatery’s interactive kitchen carries specific information on individual products, identifying, for instance, if a product is gluten-free, fat-free, or vegan.

Beyond the store’s walls, however, Hodgson is most proud of Mad Greens’ year-old smartphone app, through which guests can check off what they do not want or particular items they wish to avoid. The app will then direct guests to a list of menu items that meet specific dietary needs and also recommend substitutions from the concept’s pre-designed salads.

Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, has proved that a heavyweight national chain can also be responsive to dietary restrictions. The nearly 1,700-store chain offers low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat, and gluten-free items and communicates the availability of such products to guests through numerous avenues.

The Chick-fil-A website hosts detailed information on menu options, as well as a diabetic exchange list, an allergen quick reference guide, and a list of gluten-free items. The website also includes an interactive meal calculator that allows consumers to build meals and view nutritional content, even down to the condiments. The Chick-fil-A mobile app, meanwhile, features nutrition details on every menu item. The app also allows customers to select their food allergies and then displays a list of menu items that contain the specified allergens.

“While we do not necessarily build our menu around specific dietary restrictions or fad diets, we do believe strongly in providing customers the tools to make healthy choices according to their own dietary restrictions,” Chick-fil-A spokeswoman Tiffany Greenway says.

As dietary restrictions inherit a larger role in the restaurant space, quick serves big and small are expected to only intensify their communication efforts with consumers.

“Creating products that meet dietary needs is the respectful thing to do,” Menchie’s Kleinberger acknowledges. “Beyond that, communicating those products to guests effectively can create a win-win scenario for both guests and our restaurants.”

Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Restaurant Operations, Story, Chick-fil-A, Greenz, Mad Greens, Menchie's