Free-market forces, not menu mandates, fuel industry’s rush to feed fans of low-carb diets – NRN Editorial

Free-market forces, not menu mandates, fuel industry’s rush to feed fans of low-carb diets – NRN Editorial – Editorial

Richard Martin

Whoever said the only constant is change might have bothered to tack on a note of sympathy for restaurateurs. After all, most can’t afford to be blindsided by fast-blooming megatrends, like the low-carb craze.

I mean, if your restaurant’s signature items were, say, house-made pastas and artisan-style breads, you might not have been prepared to see your dwindling clientele stinting suddenly on starches, presumably while dining elsewhere on all-you-can-eat bacon feasts and butter-basted Porterhouses.

On the other hand, if your menu mainstays were hamburgers, there was nothing to stop you from ditching the bun and promoting an Atkins diet-friendly variation wrapped in lettuce leaves or served in a bowl. Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr. and Burger King, for their part, haven’t hesitated to introduce such bunless options recently.

And if your chain boasted sit-down dining with enticing, pictorial menus, why not tap the lean-is-keen, anti-carb trends by merchandising diet-compliant entrees endorsed by Weight Watchers or Atkins Nutritionals? Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Chili’s have jumped on that bandwagon.

Who can remember a time when so many foodservice brands glommed on to a lifestyle phenomenon quite as rapidly as we’ve seen in recent weeks with the rush to accommodate high-protein regimens and cancel carbohydrates?

Even Subway’s trailblazing marketing has morphed from the lucrative weight-loss saga of sandwich fan Jared into hilarious, new TV spots depicting carb-averse marrieds finding diet salvation in the chain’s Atkins-Friendly Wraps. But Subway’s evolution may not be so surprising as the sheer number of other mainstream feeders–among them Blimpie Sub & Salad, McDonald’s 1,300-plus Canadian outlets and the Northwest’s Burgerville chain–that have raced headlong to woo carb counters.

“Low carb is to food and restaurants what Silicon Valley was to high tech 10 years ago,” Dean Rotbart, executive editor of the online newsletter LowCarbiz, told the Sacramento Bee recently.

“It’s not a fad anymore,” Wendy’s chief executive Jack Schlussler observed in a Reuters interview in December, while revealing that his chain also would introduce low-carb products.

McDonald’s, too, last month said 650 of its U.S. restaurants would launch a pilot program featuring posters disclosing carbohydrate, fat and calorie contents and advising about the benefits of skipping starchy items.

Not even the fearsome finding of a case of mad cow disease in Washington state in late December seems to have slowed the meat-is-neat appetite of starch-stinting consumers. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said wholesalers in January bought the third-largest amount of beef in a one-week period since 1990–21.7 million pounds–as domestic demand for American beef stayed strong.

There’s also reassuring news for any restaurateurs mounting low-carb marketing efforts who may have been alarmed to hear that Atkins Nutritionals was changing its rules and warning dieters to limit their saturated-fat intakes. Despite widely misperceived news reports last month suggesting that Atkins had retreated recently from its guidelines in the face of nutritional criticism, the diet firm’s officials affirmed that their formula always has been to limit calories from saturated fats to only 20 percent of one’s caloric intake.

Perhaps as remarkable as the industry’s sudden and sweeping embrace of the low-carb-diet ethos is the fact that not too many months ago a distinctly different temperament clouded the foodservice landscape. That was when a litigious alliance of food science professors, nutrition activists and lawyers was busy taking potshots at restaurants for their alleged complicity in the fattening of America, prompting unprecedented levels of dietary defensiveness among leading chains.

Was that what provoked their dramatic ratcheting up from last year’s binge of entree salad rollouts to the more recent carb-cutting craze? While fat foes’ criticisms and legislators’ threatened nutrition disclosure mandates certainly heightened the sensitivities of menu makers, the abiding beauty of free-market economics was what really enticed the industry’s growing cadres of carb cutters.

Subway’s officials have cited their market studies showing that an estimated 35 percent of Americans are on diets, with more than one-third of those dieters saying they were on low-carbohydrate regimens.

A poll last September concluded that nearly 32 million Americans either were on or had tried a low-carb diet.

LowCarbiz’s editor, Rotbart. has placed the number of carb stinters at about 17 million though he reportedly determined through a December survey that at least twice as many Americans want reduced-carbohydrate options that wouldn’t require adherence to a specific diet.

All of that is enough to make one quickly reconsider the supposed lessons of such doomed initiatives as Taco Bell’s old Border Lites menu debacle and McDonald’s failed McLean Deluxe burger–that good-for-you promotions always bring the guilt-tripping kiss of death to mass-market feeders.

The graying–and widening–of the dominant baby boom generation also has provided impetus for the low-carb movement, but that still speaks to the overarching power of consumer demand. When it comes to hastening changes in the marketplace, old-fashioned capitalism still trumps coercion, lawsuits and regulatory threats.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group