Hats off to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health for positioning restaurants as voluntary partners—not adversaries—in its new anti-obesity effort. The program, dubbed Choose Health LA Restaurants, takes a common-sense approach to promoting healthful dining and operators can participate for free. One caveat, and it’s a big one: restaurants stand to lose sales of some of their highest-margin menu items if they sign up for this otherwise-beneficial program.

Choose Health LA Restaurants must seem like a godsend to restaurant operators who also do business in New York City. They’re used to having healthy dining initiatives forced upon them, such as menu-labeling laws and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on super-sized sodas (which the courts ultimately declared he did not have the authority to impose). Taking more of a laid-back California approach to the same issue, Choose Health LA Restaurants is a collaborative effort that promises plenty of benefits to restaurants that sign on.

The Department of Health’s goals seem both modest and admirable.

“This program is about expanding choices when dining out,” backers say. “For customers who are watching their calories, or just want a smaller size of their favorite restaurant food, this program gives them the opportunity to choose the right size at the right price. For parents, Choose Health LA Restaurants allows families the opportunity to dine out together and still feed children the fruits, vegetables, and nutritious foods they need to grow up healthy and strong.”

All restaurants must do to comply is provide customers with:

• smaller portion size options—these items are in addition to the existing items on a restaurant’s menu;

• healthier children’s meals that include fruits and vegetables, healthy beverages and non-fried foods; and

• chilled water, free of charge.

Doing these three things brings several benefits to participating restaurants. Here’s what operators get, according to the LA County Department of Public Health:

“Choose Health LA Restaurants offers you the opportunity to promote community health and also respond to customer demand. In a recent survey of LA County residents, 85 percent indicated support for restaurants offering reduced-size portion options. Additionally, a recent report looking at restaurant trends on the national level found that restaurants increasing their healthier offerings saw a 5.5 percent increase in same-store sales over a five-year period, while restaurants that did not experienced a decline.”

There’s more.

• Participating restaurants will be recognized as Public Health partners in promoting healthier communities on the Choose Health LA website and through other public outreach efforts.

• Participants will be issued an official Choose Health LA Restaurants decal that can be displayed in the restaurant, as well as in-store promotional materials about the program.

•  Participating restaurants will be offered free, on-site assistance from Choose Health LA Restaurants program staff to implement these menu changes. A dedicated staff member will guide you through the application process, from start to finish.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, LA County Director of Public Health, says participation  “can be a win-win for the health of your customers and the health of your bottom line."

Watch a video outlining the program:



Lets hope he’s right. While almost every aspect of this program seems well though-out, we’re not sure how giving away glasses of free, chilled water to anyone who wants one is necessarily a bottom-line booster. The effect might be negligible at some restaurants, but huge at others where a steady volume of high-margin sodas and similar beverages, particularly fountain drinks, is where much of their profit ultimately comes from.

For example, thrifty Subway customers—all 640 units in LA County have signed on—may soon learn they can reduce their out-of-pocket meal cost by a sizable percentage if they choose free water instead of purchasing a drink (fountain drinks are priced at $1.50 and up). Similarly, when a place like Roman’s Pizza starts missing out on a $1.29 (or likely, more) drink sale on pizza and sandwich orders, it’s probably going to feel it.

No question the free water requirement will put a damper on sales of sugar-laden soft drinks. It’s a great idea if you work in the health department. We’ll find out soon if it’s feasible for restaurant owners.