A Super-Sized Dilemma

  • Fast food customers love big portion sizes, but with nutrition and obesity under more public scrutiny, quick serves are left to decide whether to listen to their customers or to their critics.

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    Similarly, french fries went from an average of 2.4 ounces in 1955 to as much as 7.1 ounces in 2002, a 196 percent climb. And fountain soda drinks went from 7 ounces in 1955 to 12Ð42 ounces in 2002, up to a 500 percent jump.

    Post says there is a behavioral barrier today preventing Americans from eating the appropriate portion size, a barrier that the USDA and its Dietary Guidelines are attempting to overcome with inspirational and emotional messaging.

    “There are tools that will help people understand that a half a cup or a cup of something is a normal portion size,” he says. “Of course, when it comes to food labels and foods that are served in a supermarket, you have that kind of reference information on a label. When it comes to restaurants, you don’t have that recommended portion size or serving size.”

    Despite its increased scrutiny of the foodservice industry, the government does not mandate portion sizes. And quick-serve operators are thankful, since many maintain that the right portion size is entirely up to the consumer.

    Brad Haley, executive vice president of marketing for CKE, parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., says it isn’t his company’s responsibility to define portion size.

    “I don’t know if there is an appropriate portion size,” Haley says. “I think having a range of options allows people to order the burger that they think is right for their needs and their hunger level, and satisfies what they’re looking for.”

    Carl’s Jr. burgers include several large options catered to its “young hungry male” demographic. For example, there’s the line of Six Dollar Burgers, which feature a half-pound burger patty. Haley says the company was trying to rival casual-dining burgers at a fast food price, and that it required a size increase.

    “If you go to those kind of restaurants, they have burgers that are a third of a pound or more,” Haley says. “That was our goal. We weren’t trying to make a bigger burger just for size’s sake, but to really target this quality standard that was established at casual dining. That led us to a bigger burger.”

    But Haley says CKE’s brands also offer smaller burgers, some that are less than a quarter pound, which is 3 ounces of meat when cooked—a suggested USDA serving size. By doing this, he says, the customer is allowed to pick his portion of choice.

    Variety is what influenced several brands to add menu items both big and small. While Carl’s Jr. rolls out bigger burgers—a trend that even led to the gimmicky Footlong Burger test in 2010—some companies are offering small-sized offerings. Au Bon Pain, for instance, rolled out its Portions menu in 2008 that included 14 small options that were each 200 calories or less.

    Fazoli’s, an Italian concept based in Louisville, Kentucky, made over its menu in 2009. Cathy Hull, chief marketing officer for the company, says Fazoli’s portions of pasta dishes tend to be on the larger side, and that consumers want them that way.

    However, the company tested an LTO item in 2010 that offered smaller baked pastas or Mini Bakes that gave customers a wider variety.

    “Some are looking at it purely based on price point, and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want the larger size, I’m not going to take all of it home, but I also don’t want to pay $4.99 or $5.99 for that,’” Hull says. “Others are really using it to manage calories, saying, ‘Help me control my portions so I can manage my calories and my nutrition and feel better about the choices that I’m making.’”

    The Mini Bakes were successful in their first test and return to the Fazoli’s menu as an LTO this month with the added message that each is less than 400 calories.

    Anthony Leone, the founder of Energy Kitchen, a New York CityÐbased fast casual where everything on the menu is less than 500 calories, says variety on the menu is great. But simply adding some smaller-size portions to menus is not going to change consumer behavior any time soon, he says.

    “You would want to give the public the choice to make the right decision, but there’s a reason why the No. 1 at McDonald’s sells so well,” Leone says. “Everybody Super Sizes everything because there is perceived value in larger portions.”

    By keeping all of Energy Kitchen’s dishes at the appropriate portion size and less than 500 calories, Leone says, Energy Kitchen doesn’t allow the consumer to make a wrong choice.

    The CSPI’s Hurley says that full responsibility does not rest on the consumer when they decide what to eat. Quick serves also shoulder much of the load.

    “It takes someone with a lot of self-control to get a 500-calorie muffin and chop two thirds of it off, throw it out, and eat just a third,” she says. “I think people are eating what they’re offered—that’s what you’re getting, that’s what you’re eating. There are some people who will cut it in half and share it with a friend, there are some people who will ask for a doggy bag. But by and large, once it’s on your plate, it’s probably going down.”

    Still, quick serves are running a business, Haley says, and in business, market demand wins out.