All Articles Food Restaurant and Foodservice Chains start early to avoid calorie sticker shock

Chains start early to avoid calorie sticker shock

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

This post is by SmartBlog on Restaurants and Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week released the first draft of a plan to implement changes under the new law requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to begin posting calorie counts on menus and making detailed nutritional information available to consumers upon request. Now the agency is set to hear feedback from the industry and the public before putting the final touches on the plan and setting a deadline for restaurants to comply. Meanwhile, many chains aren’t waiting for the details to be set in stone.

Even before Congress passed the new menu labeling rules as part of its comprehensive health care legislation earlier this year, chains were getting proactive, not only moving toward more transparency on nutritional information but also creating new lower-calorie dishes and tweaking favorite meals so the numbers don’t look so scary. Late last week, the Orlando Sentinel reported on several restaurant companies, including Red Lobster and Olive Garden owner Darden Restaurant Group, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Chili’s, that have been busy changing their menus to offer options that don’t come with calorie sticker shock.

Nobody can predict for certain how seeing the calorie counts in front of them will impact consumers’ dining decisions over the long term — time will tell on that front. Still, some early results seemed to indicate that having the information on hand may make a difference, at least initially. A small study of Starbucks customers soon after New York began requiring calorie counts last year noted an average decline of 6% in calories consumed at Big Apple locations compared with Starbucks shops in markets where calories weren’t posted. Even better — the changes had no material impact on the chain’s sales or profits.

Online options let guests plan ahead

Some chains that haven’t yet begun posting calorie counts and nutritional information on their restaurant menus — and some that aren’t even large enough to be covered by the rule — have added website components to help calorie-counting guests plan ahead. Most casual, fast-casual and quickserve chains now post information for all menu items, and some eateries that offer the opportunity to create custom meals, including salad chains Mad Greens and Mixt Greens and quickservice biggie Burger King, now offer fun online features that calculate calories, fat and other nutritional tallies as you build your virtual meal. A mouse click reveals how many calories you add when you opt for cheese on your salad and the number of fat grams avoided when you hold the mayo on your Whopper.

Boosting top lines, not waistlines

All these new efforts by eateries to make nutritional data easily available may come with a business bonus, according to registered dietitian and restaurant consultant Alyson Mar. In a FohBoh blog post, Mar noted that calorie counts at chains including Le Pain Quotidien and Pizzeria Uno have resulted in more customers moving from higher-calorie favorites to healthier — and pricier — options. Customers show they’re willing to pay more for healthier options and eateries reap the financial rewards.

What if any changes has your restaurant made in advance of the new rules? Are you noticing guests paying more attention to calories, fat and other nutritional aspects of their meals?

blackie via iStock