The mandatory posting of calorie counts on menus of restaurants with 20+ units is finally upon us. It looks like there will be no more stays of execution, and May 7 will stick.
What’s the effect on the foodservice industry, and how will it impact what consumers order?
That’s not difficult to determine given that the calorie count requirement has hung over the industry since the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and many restaurant chains have been proactive in beating the elusive deadline. But it’s what else they’ve been up to that shows how the rule is affecting the industry. Here are a few observations, and I’ll just tell you, fruits and vegetables come up as saviors.
- Blended ingredients, anyone? Burgers have never had a low-calorie reputation, but with 500+ calories staring consumers in the face, re-evaluation became necessary. There’s the Mushroom Council to thank for pushing like crazy to blend beef with mushrooms and maintain that umami flavor while reducing calories. Sonic was the first fast-food operator to jump into this with its new Signature Slinger of which it says: SONIC Signature Slingers lets you get away with all the flavor of a cheeseburger with none of the guilt starting at $1.99. They are less than 350 calories. Sonic isn’t the first at this. Beef/mushroom blended burgers are showing up in college and university dining via the contract management companies that work hard at being cutting edge.
- How about cauliflower pizza crust? Granted, this is as much about gluten- and carb-sensitivity, but it’s also a path to reduced calories. Earlier this year Pie Five Pizza ran a cauliflower crust LTO, and California Pizza Kitchen came out with its own cauliflower crust option as a permanent addition.
- Try some Zoodles—spiralized zucchini “noodles.” These are just now emerging at national chains. While Olive Garden recently test-dabbled with Spiralized Veggie Pasta, this week Noodles & Co. announced its national permanent launch of zucchini noodles in two dishes, the new Zucchini Romesco and the Zucchini Thai Green Curry with Shrimp. Its press release states, “A regular portion of zucchini noodles has 90 percent fewer calories and carbs than a regular portion of elbow noodles, and all the flavor and taste guests have come to expect from noodles.”
It’s the rest of Noodles & Co.’s statement that shows a fortunate convergence that makes these produce-heavy, lower-calorie options more appealing than they would have been when I was growing up in the tree-hugger generation. “Plus, zoodles are packed with vitamin C and potassium and are gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian. Crisp and fresh zoodles are a perfect guilt-free swap for traditional noodles in any of our dishes.”
Today’s younger, more informed consumers want their food to do something for them. And often, that brings a lower-calorie benefit to the table.
So, what do consumers really think of the posting of calorie and nutrition information? When they eat out vs. making meals at home, aren’t they in more of an indulgent mood?
37% of consumers say they don’t care about the calorie count when ordering dishes, according to research company Mintel’s Restaurant Decision Making Process - US - December 2017 report.
On the other hand, according to the same report, but a year earlier in 2016, consumers were asked what types of menu characteristics appeal to them, and about the same percent (36%) said “offering nutritional information.” So, about one-third really care, and one-third really don’t.
Whatever the case, all operators know that unless they aim to serve a niche market, it’s important to offer indulgence and BFY options. But with the mandatory posting of calorie counts, look for more innovation with lower-calorie outcomes.
Tell me what you think.