Can regulation make it rain?
On Monday, May 7 Federal regulations went into effect requiring any foodservice retail business with 20 or more locations to begin posting nutritional details for food and beverage items on their menus. For most foodservice operators this means a revamp of menu descriptions and the addition of nutrition data sections at their web site and point of order. Typically this features spreadsheet-type lists spraying a blurry, eye chart-worthy inventory of calorie, fat, sugar, cholesterol and sodium stats.
But hidden within the clarion call for more what-you’re-eating disclosure is a potential restaurant business goldmine. At stake is an important regulatory-inspired opportunity for change. Important given foodservice businesses already face increased dining dollar competition from the significant resurgence of home cooked meal popularity. Yes, a home kitchen renaissance is underway, spurred by pervasive consumer interest in healthier foods and a desire to exercise more control over meal preparations, portions, costs and ingredients choices.
- Studies show consumers believe dining out means agreement to compromise on their healthy eating interests while they navigate a trip down the boulevard of indulgence. A recent report by food industry trends watcher The Hartman Group, revealed consumers increasingly blame restaurants for a stunningly short list of healthier choices and absence of transparency around food – thus why they feel obligated to stow their healthy lifestyle interests at the vestibule of their favorite restaurant.
According to Hartman’s work, when the majority of consumers who already claim eating out is less healthy answer why this is true for them, the top scoring reason ̶ at 41 percent of those surveyed ̶ was a focus on ‘other things’ rather than health and wellness. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.
If prevailing food culture shifts point to home-cooked meals as the best and healthiest option for the vast majority of consumers, where does that leave restaurants on the better-for-you lifestyle bandwagon?
Could regulation make it rain?
The regulatory requirements may have issued a super-sized opportunity to reframe the restaurant menu story around a greater variety of healthier menu options. Then advanced with new technology that allows patrons to configure their own more informed, personalized menu choices ahead of arrival or on site with mobile friendly apps.
Reformulation through culinary innovation
But first, is the product itself. Restaurant meals can be made healthier without sacrificing taste by applying some of the more enlightened thinking now fueling the growth of new, emerging packaged food brands that are mounting a supermarket shelf takedown. Novel ingredients, cooking techniques, new forms of sweetening using natural sugars or sauces made with vegetable broths; meat alternatives formulated from nuts or pea protein – a cornucopia of new innovation is circling the food industry with an offer of improved nutritionals while delivering the indulgent flavors and textures of chef-inspired food.
There’s simply no longer any reason why menu items can’t be made healthier while retaining taste. It may add cost per serving but then we’ve also have seen repeatedly seen that consumers are willing to pay more for healthier fare if it can be verified as such – assuming taste is not sacrificed on the alter of improved nutrition numbers.
California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) and MyMenu Tech
San Diego-based digital foodservice player HealthyDiningFinder.com, originally stepped into the restaurant marketplace to curate a search-able database of restaurants offering healthy menu items. More recently, they’ve rolled out their new MyMenu platform at CPK and Mexican cuisine specialist Rubio’s Coastal Grill, an algorithm driven business that offers restaurants a plug-and-play solution to their regulatory obligations, but served in a more user-friendly experience. It also brings a compelling add-on benefit: personal menu customization.
California Pizza Kitchen’s MyMenu pages open the door to new reasons to visit: With a few short clicks using a sliding bar selection tool on desired nutritional limits, the platform automatically sorts menu choices according to these preferences while calling up attractive photos and detailed descriptions of each dish or beverage. It reveals what’s in them and what they impart in terms of nutrition impact (calories, fat, sugar, etc.).
The Rubio’s MyMenu page also offers a pre-set list of menu alternatives created by Healthy Dining’s dietitian experts around lifestyle preferences such as Energy, Fit Lifestyle and Weight Control. Each choice rolls up special menus based on these specific interests.
The tool’s flexibility creates the option to customize a dish with ingredient swap-outs or to build a full meal while each dish and drink selection repopulates the overall impact on nutrition outcomes, so you know immediately how many calories and fat grams are involved.
- In a soon-to-arrive platform enhancement, Healthy Dining says guests will be able to save selections for future use, and there will be options for purchase on-site, for pick-up or delivery. Then patrons will be able to build and retain their own personal menu for a variety of their favorite eateries using the tool ̶ all based on individual dietary preferences and healthy dining interests.
Of course, the key here is to actually have healthier choices available, and in doing so, solve the dilemma of perceived nutritional sacrifice that restaurant eating might entail. The goldmine is simple: remove the friction from healthier choice at out-of-home eating by offering more healthy choices.
Then look to software platforms like MyMenu to allow patrons to examine, sort and retain their healthy meal preferences ̶ and with it creating an opportunity to forge foodservice brand preference.
For those restaurants that get this right, it could be an equally compelling do-it-for-me dining offer that rivals the siren song of home cooked healthier meals.
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Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, the healthy living agency. Emergent provides integrated brand strategy, communications and insight solutions to national food, beverage, home and lifestyle companies. Emergent’s unique and proprietary transformation and growth focus helps organizations navigate, engage and leverage consumers’ desire for higher quality, healthier product or service experiences that mirror their desire for higher quality lifestyles. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.