Hip to be fit: operators alter menus to meet diet demands

Hip to be fit: operators alter menus to meet diet demands

Bret Thorn

LOS ANGELES — With the U.S. population getting older and heavier and fad diets being spun out with increased speed, restaurant operators are under growing pressure to meet the changing demands of health-conscious consumers, said menu-trend expert Nancy Kruse.

Kruse, speaking before a large crowd during the annual Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference here, noted that the average age of the U.S. population is advancing, the number of calories consumed is increasing and the amount of time spent watching television, driving and otherwise not exercising is lengthening. It is no wonder that 61 percent of the population is overweight and 20 percent is clinically obese, she said.

In addition, our houses, cars and televisions all are getting larger.

“Why the big houses? Why the big cars? Why television screens that are akin to movie screens?” she asked. “Because we live large; it’s an American attitude.”

That bigger-is-better notion extends to our food, where large portion sizes are seen as a sign of value, she noted.

Nonetheless, Kruse said customers now are seeking solutions to their weight problems. The proliferation of salad entrees and a decrease in consumption of French fries prove that, she said. The percentage of lunches ordered with fries fell from 27.3 percent to 22.2 percent between 1997 and 2003, she said, noting that the drop came during the rises of both the fast-casual segment and the low-carbohydrate craze. Both phenomena discourage consumption of fries because few fast-casual restaurants offer them and low-carb diets advise against eating them.

She also said the decrease doesn’t indicate an end to fries, but it does suggest that quick-service restaurants don’t necessarily need to offer them.

However, the low-carb craze does seem to have peaked, with fewer than 10 percent of the population now saying they are following such diets, Kruse noted. And even among those who claim to be living the low-carb lifestyle, average carbohydrate consumption is close to 128 grams, which is about half the amount previously consumed but still well above the 20 to 50 grams recommended by low-carb diets.

Kruse said she doesn’t expect that diet fad to go away but expects it to join the ranks of other diets that people follow and to which restaurants must adapt.

For that reason restaurants are turning to their corporate chefs to add flavor without adding calories, she noted. Some examples are Bennigan’s chicken stir-fry with “tantalizing Asian sauce”; Chili’s tomato-basil pasta with marinara sauce, fresh basil and Parmesan; and Quizno’s veggie sub with red-wine vinaigrette.

“No one is feeling deprived, from a taste point of view,” she said.

She pointed out that more and more restaurants are mentioning the calorie counts, fat content and other nutritional information of some items on their menus. One example is the Philly Chick Wrap at Jason’s Deli, which contains 7.44 grams of fat.

Kruse said she doesn’t know how well customers understand such content information, but such listings do give weight-conscious patrons psychological permission to order those dishes.

A key to pleasing customers in the future will be to offer choices, Kruse said, showing a slide of McDonald’s salads, which she credits for the chain’s recent turnaround in profits. The salads offer full-fat as well as low-fat dressings, she pointed out.

Other option-offering chains she mentioned are Bahama Breeze, which states on its menu, “Lighter portions available,” and Claim Jumper, which reminds guests that they can share entrees.

In addition, California Pizza Kitchen offers half orders of salads, and Red Lobster serves its fish grilled, broiled, fried or blackened, she noted.

Kruse also said that more chains are offering vegetable-based items without calling them vegetarian, perhaps because vegetarianism still suffers from a stigma of radicalism.

She offered the statistic that only 2 percent to 3 percent of American consumers really are vegetarian, and most of them live on college campuses. After graduating, she said, “they seem to take their diplomas and run to Outback.”

Kruse said healthful options for kids also are growing, with turkey–a mild, white protein with happy, holiday associations–being offered to children more often than to adults.

Looking to the future, Kruse said she expects people’s diets to grow increasingly personal and specialized, with more focus on their own particular allergies and moral, health and culinary predilections. Their attitudes will shift not just with age but as also more food scares and “diets du jour” surface. “You will be expected to respond to that,” she said.

That’s already happening, she added, with offerings such as P.F. Chang’s 13-item gluten-free menu and Chipotle’s growing use of naturally raised proteins and organic products.

She also predicted growth in the use of fresh and seasonal foods, which corporate chefs see as the biggest trend on the horizon, according to NRN research. She said such products have a “halo of health” and assuage concerns about product quality.

Kruse pointed out, however, that chains are built on the notion of consistent menus that don’t change with the seasons, so many of their fresh and seasonal items will be limited-time offerings.

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