I’m in Southern California this week and drove by one of my old haunts: Coco’s. I noticed it because they had a new sign with big puffy yellow letters, as opposed to the big puffy white letters the last time I drove by. Ironically, this exact location was one where we experimented with different exterior color combinations when I was the Marketing Vice President of Coco’s years ago. After we painted it, sales were up 10%. Unfortunately, the color combination didn’t look as good as we wanted, so we repainted it with a different color combination a month later. Sales were up another 10%.

I said at the time that, given the price of the exterior paint job versus advertising, our marketing plan should be to just repaint every few months. No one agreed, but I would still love to try that strategy some time.

Well, that was enough to motivate me to stop in, and I had breakfast at Coco’s this morning. I saw for the first time the “full on” nutritional information now required in the state of California. (Luckily, I saw it after I finished my breakfast.) I looked for it amid the other point-of-sale merchandising on the table because I overheard a guy in the next booth trying to order from it…with little success.

This whole situation regarding nutritional values and the recent dust up with the study showing that there is a high level of discrepancy between the stated and actual nutritional information in a surprising percentage of restaurants is fascinating.

It reminded me of a story that my friend Lowell Petrie used to tell about an experience he had when he was Brand Marketing Director at Denny’s years ago. As the story goes, Denny’s was prominently offering Eggbeaters on their menus, so the President of Eggbeaters visited a Denny’s to try them. He was surprised to find that they were the best Eggbeaters he had ever had, so he asked his server to have the cook come out to the table. The cook came out, and the president said, “These are the best Eggbeaters I’ve ever had. What’s your secret?”

The very proud cook replied, “Well, Eggbeaters alone aren’t very good, so whenever anyone orders them, I add an egg.”

To me that’s it, in a nutshell. The issue of nutritional information is a two-sided equation:

On the restaurant side,
* It’s a merchandising issue: Make the promise you can keep. Coco’s did a good job creating realistic expectations in the disclaimers referencing variations that might be caused by suppliers, specs, preparation, etc. And I think creating realistic expectations and educating consumers what they mean (and don’t mean) is critical.
* It’s a training issue: Keep the promises you make. Freelancing in the kitchen is a time-honored fact in our industry. But the current mandates may suggest that if we have a food problem, we solve it in the recipe that we send out to the field rather than solving the problem in the kitchens. (They shouldn’t have to “improve it” in the field.)

From the consumer side of the equation,
* It’s a reality check, and everything’s a trade off: Nice big portions that fill you up versus low calories. Fresh, made from scratch versus the relentless predictability of boiling bag portioned food.
* If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. People who drink decaf coffee have known this for years. How many times have you been with someone who verified that the coffee really was decaf before ever taking a sip? That’s just what you do.

I think it’s time for us to educate consumers. Yes, we need to offer good nutritional options, but the information is another issue. No two apples have the same number of calories. (And, no, this is not a conspiracy.) More importantly, I understand that chili peppers are hotter some seasons than others and fresh cut french fries absorb different amounts of grease during certain months of the year. All of this to say, nature is full of variation. The real solution to variability is the precision predictability of machine manufactured product.

Sadly, there is a tradeoff between fresh, made from scratch quality and precision. With all of the new outlets to educate consumers about food like the Food Network and all of the cooking shows, maybe it is time for an initiative that creates a realistic context for the discussion on the nutritional information.

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