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.”


Calkins says such efforts are being helped along by the “better-burger” category. “Better-burger chains aren’t reinventing the wheel, but in using better beef, better oil, and better ingredients, these brands have made a name for themselves around the idea of better versions of what people love,” he says. “This way, they can hang their hat on the positives. For instance, Smashburger has started using organic arugula and mushrooms. We’ve seen that with the organic label, a little can go a long way, and calling it out on the menu makes everything look better.”

A broader definition of health food also allows consumers to feel better about eating some standard indulgences, like burgers, fries, and big burritos.

“Places like Chipotle have trained customers to choose the ingredients they want and to know more about high-quality ingredient sources,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, senior director of programs, culinary nutrition, and strategic initiatives at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). “Now fast food has to respond with more flexibility and in adding more healthful ingredients.”

Following what’s happening in these fast-casual concepts also makes better business sense. Research conducted by research firm The NPD Group shows visits to fast-casual restaurants were up 8 percent in 2013 over the prior year, compared with no growth for the total industry and quick-service segment. Spending at fast-casual restaurants increased by 10 percent last year compared with 2 percent growth at all restaurants.

Chipotle’s success has led the way for places like Chicago-based, 20-unit Protein Bar to use the same service model, but with a menu that builds on healthier ingredients like quinoa. An even newer breed of health-minded chains in the fast-casual segment build their brands around the power of the word green, with names like Sweetgreen, Mad Greens, and Tender Greens.

Jon Olinto, cofounder of 17-unit, Boston-based fast casual b.good, sees the same health halo around the word local. The brand launched 10 years ago with the goal of making better, higher-quality versions of burgers, fries, and shakes. Along the way, local sourcing became a priority, and more recently, the menu has evolved to match consumer demand for slightly edgier better-for-you dishes and seasonal specials.

“When we launched our Kale Crush green smoothie about a year ago, we weren’t sure it would get ordered; we thought it was a little out there, but people were ready,” Olinto says. Testing a product with kale, spinach, mint, pineapple, almond milk, and hemp seed taught Olinto and his partner Tony Rosenfeld to be slightly edgy with seasonal specials, he says.

“Now we are using more kale. We have a kale and quinoa salad with sautéed, marinated vegetables,” Olinto says. “We put this on the menu about 12 months ago and feel we’re reaching a whole new audience with this. More folks have become interested in the ‘food IQ.’”

He adds that b.good still sells the same number of burgers and shakes, and that all sales are up as existing and new customers take chances on seasonal grain salads. The brand also sees food trends as opportunities to extend the menu and diners’ tastes. Olinto added quinoa when it became a culinary darling. He then looked at how other grains could build on that momentum, resulting in a seasonal Mozzarella and tomato salad now being featured. “We still use local tomatoes—and everybody loves the tomatoes and Mozzarella combo—but we’ve added toasted freekeh to it,” Olinto says. Freekeh is a green wheat product that is harvested young and roasted for a chewy, nutty result.

At Panera Bread, the R&D team added sprouted grain bagel flats and rolls as another way to offer a whole-grain ingredient and add variety in bread options.

“People are receptive to whole grains like quinoa and farro right now, so slip them in the salads and bowl meals,” Calkins says.

Whole grains are another way to say “healthy” without shouting the word. Mintel’s July 2013 Healthy Dining Trends report shows that 35 percent of consumers identify the term whole grains with healthful restaurant items. Another 49 percent look to menu items that include more fruit and vegetables.

Packing on produce

Boosting the health and flavor profiles of foods in the quick-service industry is often a matter of adding more produce to the menu.

“We’ve found that increased produce usage has had the most positive impact on menus, whether it’s Subway adding avocado, fast food offering apple slices, or just more operators emphasizing fresh,” the CIA’s Miller says.

Since 2012, the CIA has brought together influential culinary and nutrition professionals from across foodservice for the annual Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. The initiative creates practical, non-proprietary solutions that expand the availability and sales of menu choices that are nutritious, delicious, and meet customer demand.

Miller says kitchen brainstorming in a collaborative setting can create “light-bulb moments” because people—even competitors—are supportive and can talk more openly about what’s not working. One such moment came when a group was tasked with reducing the sodium in a sandwich by 20 percent. They wrestled with how a sandwich had to maintain the basics of bread, meat, and cheese. Finally someone said, “What about adding more produce?”

“Produce is a great way to reduce sodium; it’s sodium free, so just by adding more of it to menu items, you’re reducing sodium with no other changes,” Miller says.

FDR’s Calkins recommends the same strategy in condiments. He spent many years at a large quick-service sandwich chain, where cutting sodium and calories without compromising flavor was a big priority.

Calkins uses ranch dressing as an example of an item in which boosting flavor can also increase quality and nutrition.

“The trick is to increase flavor attributes, especially in things that people love,” he says. “People already love ranch dressing, so pack it with fresh herbs, garlic, and onion, and you can make it a higher-quality, lower-sodium product. Cleaner and healthier is what people want, and are even willing to pay more for better quality.”

Beyond its built-in sodium reductions, produce is also a trendy commodity right now, and savvy operators are exploiting the trend.

“Salads have come a long way in terms of flavor and appeal,” Calkins says. “So get some kale in your green mix. Add some grains. Take easy, small steps, and soon you’ll be making bigger strides.”

At b.good, local and seasonal menu items have offered a way for the brand to edge customers into trying new things, most of which are introduced to loyal customers with free offers sent through the brand’s subscription e-newsletters. Freebies are typically one-day offers that bring in as many as 150 customers, Olinto says.

“The goal is to be welcoming and find a balance between daring and mainstream,” he says. “You need good timing to help evolve tastes without forcing anything. It has to be feel right for your menu. Be on the edge of scary.”

Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Menu Innovations, Story, b.good, Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries, Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Panera Bread