Now that many restaurants are required by law to list calorie counts on menus, you may be fretting that full disclosure will spook your guests. Not to worry, according to two groups that get paid to consider such conundrums.
Weighing in first is Technomic, which sums up the good/good-for-you restaurant challenge this way: “Nearly half of consumers want healthier menu items, but only about a quarter of them actively consider nutrition when dining out.”
Technomic executive v.p. Darren Tristano, drilling down into the findings from the firm’s “2010 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report,” puts this apparent contradiction into perspective.
“There is often a disconnect between consumers’ intentions and their actions,” he observes. “Many consumers are actually making substantial changes to their overall habits, even basing which restaurants they frequent in part based on their impressions of the healthfulness of the brands. However, as many of us know from personal experience, diners do not always follow through on their intentions once it is time to order.”
Another finding from the study supports Tristano’s conclusion and suggests a reason: Significantly more consumers described their at-home meals as “very healthy” versus their dining-out occasions.
Which leads us to our second trusted source, Mintel. The firm’s research determined that while restaurant guests like the concept of menu transparency, 43 percent of them say their ordering habits are likely to change when they are armed with more information and 62 percent of them intend to clean up their diet in the upcoming year, many still fantasize about the likes of deep-fried mac ‘n cheese, death by chocolate and triple cheeseburgers when they settle in at one of your tables. And some of them have figured out that the craveability of many dishes suffers when the sugar, sodium and fat are trimmed.
“Both the government and consumers want healthier menu options, but restaurant-goers are also very concerned about value and how their food tastes,” concludes Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel. “Keeping both parties satisfied might be a challenge as we move into 2011.”
One way to meet that challenge, Mintel suggests, is to swap out ingredients perceived as bad-for-you with less-offensive alternatives, which should appeal to guests who want to feel good about what they’re eating. They note that Taco Bell has quietly reduced sodium in menus at its Dallas-area stores, while Jason’s Deli promotes its avoidance of high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats and pesticides.
One chain that seems to have figured out this saints-versus-sinners dilemma is Seasons 52. There, the menu makes it clear that no dish runs more than 475 calories, but the appealing choices do not come close to deprivation. For dessert, small portions reward patrons with small tastes of not one, but five items.
The real winner in all of this may be the limited-time offer, which is exempt from nutrition labeling rules. Mintel suggests that operators capitalize on this loophole by promoting more-indulgent novelty or seasonal menu items, which would allow customers to treat themselves in blissful, guilt-free ignorance.