Critical Mass

It’s finally happened. After decades of talking about the need for healthy solutions, demand has reached critical mass and restaurants are beginning to really meet the challenge.

Healthy dining has been a topic of discussion since I started as marketing director at Max & Erma’s in the mid ’80s. Then, entrepreneurial founder Barry Zacks responded to the health trend by wanting to print calorie counts on the menu. I thought it would be a disaster, so I talked him into printing the menus with just the phrase, “Nutritional values available upon request.”

Unfortunately, the menu rolled out before the nutritional information was complete. Luckily, the humor in the menu and the quirkiness of the brand made customers think it was a joke, because the lowest calorie item on our menu was Apple Pie with Cinnamon Sauce…seriously.

There’s an expression, “If it were easy, it would be done by now.” The truth is, health and wellness is a complex and tricky issue. Not only do people not agree what it means, but restaurant companies struggle with what it means for their brands.

As with any trend, I think it’s important to not just know the trend, but to really understand what the trend means to consumers and then create a response that’s consistent with your brand positioning. Clearly, for Max & Erma’s, a brand known for potato skins, a build-your-own-sundae bar and 10 ounce garbage burgers, nutrition was not a key driver.

Early false starts interpreting the “healthy” trend led to nutrition at the expense of taste, low sales volumes on healthy alternatives and even confusion on how much information is too much information. Ruby Tuesday’s initiative in 2004 to put nutritional information on the menu was described as a response to “feedback from guests and employees who were asking.” They knew the trend but may have misjudged what it meant to their guests. Not unlike Barry, they were a little ahead of their time.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune about the NRA referenced Dawn Sweeney’s “mitigation and damage control” approach to consumer activists demanding that nutritional labeling be included in the health-care bill. Her meetings with CSPI created a compromise providing that calorie count information be printed on menus but more detailed information be available upon request.

This mandate may level the playing field, but labeling is only part of the equation. The nutritional information quantifies the “healthiness,” but it’s the culinary and marketing creativity that rescues us from tasteless, low volume filler on our menus.

  • Taco Bell: One of my current favorites is Taco Bell’s Drive-Thru Diet. It piques the imagination and it comes with the caveat, “Drive-Thru Diet is not a weight-loss program. For a healthier lifestyle, pay attention to total calorie and fat intake and regular exercise.” Clearly, this illustrates that the obesity crisis is a two-sided coin with both restaurants and consumers having a role to play. Restaurants do their part by offering healthy choices, healthy ingredients and nutritional information. Customers do their part by being mindful of their health when making choices.
  • Corner Bakery Cafe: Sometimes it’s merchandising the current offerings more than creating new offerings that can make the difference. On my recent trip to Chicago, I saw Corner Bakery’s “Over 100 Combinations under 600 Calories” table tents that make it “Easier for Guests to Keep Their 2010 New Year’s Resolutions.” What great merchandising!
  • Cheesecake Factory: Known for their large portions of indulgent food, even Cheesecake Factory is in on the game with small plates and “Weight Management Grilled Chicken.” (I might have assigned a copywriter to work on the name, but it certainly makes a great promise.)
  • McDonald’s: From the nutritional info on the tray liners to offerings like healthier cooking oils, salads with low-fat dressings and side items like Apple Dippers, McDonald’s has been able to distinguish the brand among consumers as offering healthy alternatives for customers who want to take control.
  • And, at the end of the day, “healthy and wholesome” really is in the eye of the consumer.

Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.