Serving lower-calorie food and beverages is not only good for guests, it also makes for a healthier bottom line for restaurants, according to a new report entitled “Lower-Calorie Foods: It’s Just Good Business” from Hudson Institute, a New York based, nonpartisan policy research organization. After studying 21 of the nation’s largest full-service and quick-service chains between 2006 and
2011, the organization found restaurants that served more lower-calorie foods and beverages had better sales growth, larger increases in consumer traffic, and stronger gains in total food and beverage servings than chains where servings of lower-calorie foods declined.
In 17 of the 21 chains, lower-calorie foods and beverages—defined as those with no more than 500 calories for a main course item, 50 or fewer calories for a beverage, and 150 or fewer for a side dish, appetizer, or dessert—outperformed those that were not lower-calorie, explains Hank Cardello, lead author of the report, senior fellow at Hudson Institute, and director of its Obesity Solutions Initiative.
Those restaurants also saw a 5.5 percent increase in same-store sales compared with a 5.5 percent decline among chains selling fewer lower-calorie servings, as well as a 10.9 percent growth in customer traffic vs. a 14.7 percent decline in traffic at restaurants less committed to low-calorie offerings, and an 8.9 percent increase in total food and beverages servings, compared with a 16.3 percent decrease at the chains with fewer low-cal options.
“Consumers are hungry for restaurant meals that won’t expand their waist lines, and the chains that recognize this are doing better than those that don’t,” Cardello explains. “Ignoring this fact is just like leaving money on the table.”
Slimming down food and beverage items should not be about demonizing any particular dishes or the ingredients in them. Sometimes, he says, reducing the caloric footprint is as simple as controlling the portion size of a favorite food. “Outback [Steakhouse], for example, could offer a smaller version of its famous Bloomin’ Onion appetizer and call it a Bloomette,” he suggests.
At Chili’s Grill & Bar, one of the chains included in the Hudson Institute study, creating a lighter menu meant kicking up the flavors on some low-cal classics such as chicken and tilapia. Using bold ingredients including honey-lime vinaigrette, habanero and sweet orange glaze, chili seasoning, and mango salsa, the company was able to keep these items lower in fat, saturated fat, and calories than traditional items.