Courtesy of Chili’s Grill & Bar

Healthy Menus Make for Healthier Business

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.


Although Chili’s had offered lighter options since 1993, it officially launched its “Lighter Choices” brand with six items in January 2012. The positive reception among guests led the company to add two more last December.

“We introduced the Lighter Choices menu after listening to guest feedback about providing healthier options to meet lifestyle and dining-occasion needs at both lunch and dinner,” a spokesperson for the Dallas-based chain tells FSR.

While many restaurants that offered lighter dishes used to tuck them away on a corner of the menu like an afterthought, today they are putting the low-calorie choices front and center. For example, lower-calorie items are called out all over the menu at IHOP Restaurants, which was also included in the Hudson Institute study. Items that are less than 600 calories are marked with a special “Simple & Fit” logo. Healthful hints embedded on pages throughout the menu suggest guests might “hold the butter or whipped topping, ask for dressings on the side, or choose half a sandwich and a side of fruit” to lighten up their selections.

Although the Glendale, California based chain began offering lighter items on its menu three years ago, the category got a big boost last September when the chain branded its Simple & Fit campaign, and expanded the lineup to 30 options, including such high profile—and immediately popular—selections as whole wheat pancakes and waffles, and oatmeal with five superfruits.

“At IHOP, we’re all about choice, so we let guests looking for something more healthful know that they can choose from our Simple & Fit menu or just use one of our tips to lighten up their favorite dish,” says Natalia Franco, IHOP’s senior vice president of marketing.

Creating a more healthful children’s menu has been a particular area of focus for IHOP. Now everything on their children’s menu meets the Simple & Fit criteria to have less than 600 calories.

“For adults, we might make their omelets with egg whites, while for children we will use the regular egg batter and just reduce the portion size,” Franco explains.


Promoting Nutritional Awareness

Eating fit is about more than cutting calories, and restaurants are taking this into consideration as well—as witnessed by the menu at Denny’s Corporation, another restaurant chain tracked in the Hudson Institute Report. Denny’s menus boast colored icons designating items that are higher in protein and fiber, and lower in fat and calories. Introduced in January 2012, Denny’s calls this initiative “Fit Fare,” and John Dillon, Denny’s vice president of marketing and product development, says guest response has been overwhelmingly positive. Some items, such as the veggie skillets and “build-your-own Grand Slam,” are selling even better than the company had anticipated.

“We have always been all about choice, but since we called out the nutritional information on our menu, we’re seeing a lot of chatter on Facebook and Twitter saying guests are surprised that they can mix and match ingredients 250 ways to create Grand Slams that have 550 calories or less,” Dillon says. “It’s making people realize Denny’s has evolved.”

Moms are a major demographic target for the Fit Fare campaign. “They have the veto vote when it comes to choosing where the family goes out to eat,” he says. And to reach this key group, Denny’s focuses on digital and social advertising to women, especially on the “mommy bloggers.”

It’s not just the national chains that are getting in on the skinny. In March, Another Broken Egg Café—a Destin, Florida based breakfast, brunch, and lunch concept with 26 restaurants in eight states and 10 more coming soon—debuted its eight-item “Healthy Side” menu. At this chain, “healthy” refers to items with reduced calories or that are higher in particular nutrients or offer other functional benefits.

“Not all of our Healthy Side items are under 500 calories, but they are healthier because they contain the good fats, the high proteins, and superfoods for better energy, plus they have no additives or preservatives,” says Another Broken Egg Café founder and president Ron Green.

The new Skinny Omelette, which is low in cholesterol and under 500 calories, competes daily for the No. 1 spot of all omelets ordered at the restaurants, and some days it is the company-wide best seller, Green notes.


And, since switching from traditional oatmeal to natural mineral-rich, steel cut oats, the restaurants have seen a 10–15 percent increase in sales of this dish company-wide. Similarly, the omega-rich Simply Salmon “is enjoying a comfortable 30 percent increase in sales over its tuna counterpart on the menu.”

Beyond breakfast and entrées, the commitment to cut calories even extends to desserts. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro has offered a 28-dish, gluten-free menu, including a Flourless Chocolate Dome for dessert, since 2010. Anne Deanovic, P.F. Chang’s spokeswoman, says guest response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” and customers can also request nutritional information, including calorie counts, or have their favorite dishes adjusted based on food allergies and dietary requirements such as lactose intolerance or vegan preferences.

Although Red Robin Gourmet Burgers does not specifically call out lighter items on its menu, it does emphasize customization as a way for guests to satisfy their dietary needs. Diners can access a nutritional calculator that includes all of the items on Red Robin’s menu online or through their Android or Apple mobile devices. They can also order any burger sans bun as a lettuce wrap—an increasingly popular choice, says Denny Marie Post, Red Robin’s senior vice president and chief menu and marketing officer.

“Lettuce wraps are great and easy for us to do because we don’t have to add any SKUs to our inventory,” Post says. “It required much more of a commitment for us to offer gluten-free buns because they’re more expensive and are another inventory item.”

Red Robin guests can also switch the protein from beef to chicken, turkey, veggie, or vegan burgers—and opt for a fruit salad instead of fries on the side. Not to feel slighted, they can replace the chain’s signature bottomless french fries with all the steamed broccoli they can eat, Post notes.

“For today’s consumer, it’s not about going on a diet…it’s about having a much higher level of nutritional intelligence and having the opportunity to make more healthful choices,” she says. “Diners are not willing to accept something dry and bland for the sake of cutting calories.”

The Hudson Institute’s Cardello concurs: “The old bigger, better, greater value model is tired. Now there are huge opportunities for restaurants to improve profit margins on these smaller-portion items because consumers are coming to understand that the right size, at the right price, is what really makes something a good value. The guys who get it are going to leave the ones who don’t behind.”