Full-service chains are expanding healthy menus and promoting active lifestyles.

When Carolina Ale House assembled its philanthropic mission years ago, the goal of promoting active, healthy lifestyles was near the top of its list.

“As we see it, health is wealth,” says Mindy Stroupe, corporate communications manager for the 25-unit Carolina Ale House enterprise.

While the North Carolina-based chain has long been supporting youth and adult athletic leagues through sponsorships, the company has crafted relationships with local cycling clubs over the last three years to further advance its mission.

For instance, the Raleigh, North Carolina–based Team Spoke Cycles uses Carolina Ale House as its home base for meetings and social events, including its annual Velo4Yellow fundraising event. About 500 riders gather at Carolina Ale House’s location in Wake Forest, North Carolina, for the annual charity ride featuring 30-, 60-, and 100-mile routes. Carolina Ale House markets the event with in-store posters and banners and also provides hospitality for the event. Meanwhile, Team On Draft, another North Carolina cycling club, meets for all of its weekly rides at a Carolina Ale House in Raleigh.

“It’s a natural fit to get involved with these clubs since they are our customers and because promoting active lifestyles is such an important piece of what we want to do on the philanthropic side,” Stroupe says.

Another North Carolina–based enterprise, Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, also gets in the community fitness game. For more than a decade, Brixx has been the headline sponsor of the Hit the Brixx road race. The annual event, which ends at Brixx’s uptown Charlotte location, attracted nearly 1,700 participants last September.

Two of Brixx’s Charlotte locations are also a part of the Bicycle Benefits program, an emerging national initiative that rewards cyclists’ physical activity with discounts at local businesses. Patrons who ride their bikes to the participating Brixx locations and display the Bicycle Benefits sticker on their helmets receive a free pizza with the purchase of another pizza.

“We think the world is better off with more bikes and fewer cars, and we appreciate how this initiative encourages people to get out on their bikes,” Brixx founding partner Jeff Van Dyke says.

While Van Dyke acknowledges these initiatives do not generate any significant, direct financial benefit, he says that appealing to people who lead active lifestyles aligns nicely with Brixx’s brand positioning as a high-quality dining alternative.


“There’s a nice synergy here,” Van Dyke admits, noting how the 26-unit restaurant chain sponsors youth athletics and tournaments in many of its markets as well.

Whether it’s being a good partner or just practicing good business, a play to engender community good will or a play to push revenue, Carolina Ale House and Brixx Wood Fired Pizza are not alone in promoting healthy lifestyles. Across the country, a number of full-service restaurant enterprises are championing healthy living to both guests and employees, and are motivated to show themselves as caring, responsive companies committed to people.

Such is certainly the case at Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant, a growing chain with 17 restaurants and 2,100 employees across six states.

At the company’s corporate offices in Countryside, Illinois, healthy snacks, including bananas, grapes, and strawberries, line a cafeteria table. The snacks, available complimentary to all staff, are replenished daily, says Cooper’s Hawk manager of health and safety Natalya Harvey.

“It’s a simple thing,” Harvey acknowledges, “but it sets the tone that we care about health and want to make healthy choices accessible.”

That simple measure at headquarters is only the beginning for Cooper’s Hawk.

Now in its third year, the company’s wellness screening program offers deep discounts on health programs to approximately 700 full-time employees across the restaurant’s system who complete an annual health screening. Employees who participate receive a report detailing their personal health metrics and are then directed to services, from life and wellness coaches to discounts on gym memberships, to help them accomplish their individual health goals. By participating, an employee with a family health plan can reduce his premium by $100 each month, Harvey says.

“Wellness fits right into our vision and values,” Harvey says. “We care about people and this drives the decisions we make.”

Harvey adds that Cooper’s Hawk also places a significant priority on educating employees about healthy living. Whenever a new restaurant opens, she travels to that location and personally advises the incoming group of employees on all the available benefits, including wellness programs and discounts. In addition, a monthly newsletter distributed to employees includes a column featuring information on everything from nutrition and oral care to alcohol awareness and heart health.


“We focus a lot on education so our employees know what options and resources they have to live the healthiest life possible,” Harvey says.

Similarly, DineEquity, the parent company of Applebee’s and IHOP, looks to make healthy living more accessible to its support center staff and restaurant general managers, about 600 employees.

Recently, DineEquity leveraged its longstanding relationship with Weight Watchers to craft a voluntary program at both its Glendale, California, and Kansas City, Missouri, corporate offices. At each location, 20–25 team members received on-site counseling from Weight Watchers staff, while DineEquity absorbed a portion of the costs for any employee who completed the course.

And earlier this year, about a dozen DineEquity employees participated in the company’s first-ever smoking cessation program. Participants received six weeks of telephonic coaching to curb the smoking habit, which is cited as the leading preventable cause of death by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company’s vice president of compensation and benefits, Greg Bever, says DineEquity plans to increase incentives in 2015, including greater discounts on health care costs, to advance participation in the smoking cessation program.

“It’s one of the little things we can do so our people enjoy healthier, more productive lives,” says Bever, adding that DineEquity also offers online wellness courses related to nutrition, stress management, exercise, and other health-themed issues as well as unfettered access to lifestyle and health coaches for personalized guidance.

A focus on employee health also takes center stage at American Blue Ribbon Holdings, the Nashville-based conglomerate that oversees five full-service restaurant concepts: O’Charley’s, Bakers Square, Village Inn, Max & Erma’s, and Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub.

American Blue Ribbon will continue rolling out a broad and ambitious push for employee wellness in 2015. The program, currently active at its four company support centers, includes health screenings, smoking counseling, a well-baby program, discounts at fitness centers, and even table tennis tournaments. Chief people officer Bill Streitberger expects to continue adding employee competitions and rewards, including incentives for tracking steps or for hitting health care goals such as reaching weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol marks.

“[The competition and incentives add] an element beyond simply punching in and punching out,” Streitberger says. “It creates excitement, and connects and engages our workforce.”

Though American Blue Ribbon’s restaurant portfolio spans 650 restaurants, 43 states, and two manufacturing facilities, Streitberger says his team is committed to expanding its health and wellness initiatives beyond its four support centers deep into the field, eventually providing restaurant managers and front-line staff greater access to the employee wellness program.


“Once we get the biometrics testing program down pat, that’s the plan,” he says.

Early ideas, Streitberger says, include sites across the country where local employees can have health screenings as well as a website via which the company can run wellness contests for all its employees.

“We set the tone with the environment we create here in our Nashville headquarters, but as we improve these processes we definitely want to take them deeper into the field,” he says.

American Blue Ribbon, Streitberger adds, remains motivated by more than reducing health care expenditures, noting a healthy team is more productive. By tackling preventable issues and helping team members understand how they can take better care of themselves, Streitberger believes employees will be in a stronger frame of mind to elevate their performance and build a stronger workplace.

“We don’t want to say, ‘Here’s your insurance, now go take care of yourself,’” Streitberger says. “We want to make sure our people are engaged in healthy living rather than trying to grind out day after day.”

Putting a fun spin on healthy living and physical activity is also part of the equation at Shula’s Steak Houses, where corporate team-building events typically feature an active element. In August, for example, Shula’s brought its operations team to its south Florida headquarters and followed morning meetings with an intense laser tag competition.

“We’re always looking for ways to get our people up and moving around,” president Dave Shula says.

That includes Shula himself, who says it’s imperative that he leads by example. Shula participates in triathlon competitions and the annual Dolphins Cycling Challenge, for which the Shula’s brand is a proud supporter.

“I understand that I can’t talk about [healthy living] if I don’t do it myself,” says Shula, whose restaurant enterprise includes nearly three dozen full-service restaurants and about 750 employees.

As a result of his own activity, Shula says he is better positioned to motivate and persuade others to participate in physical activities. He encourages corporate employees to sign up for fitness classes, and he leads a team of Shula employees in the Schott Communities 5-kilometer race in Cooper City, Florida, an annual event that the company sponsors and he co-chairs.


Shula says physical fitness is central to the company’s culture, particularly given how the Shula name is rooted in sports given his father’s legacy as former coach of the Miami Dolphins. Much like Cooper’s Hawk, Shula’s provides healthy living tips to employees through a monthly newsletter. Chief financial officer Nicole Milnthorpe’s health-focused bulletins, distributed to all employees and franchise owners, feature information on nutrition, exercise, sleep, the importance of regular physical checkups, and other wellness-related topics.

“From a corporate standpoint, healthy, active lifestyles are something we believe in,” Shula says. “We talk a lot about being balanced and how this business is a marathon, not a sprint. To perform at a high level consistently, we need balance, we need to be able to handle stress, and we need to be nurturing our minds and bodies.”

Plus, he adds, “People who are used to activity are ready to grind when that’s necessary, too. And we all know that happens in this business as well.”

Raising Standards

Silver Diner and Applebee’s Earn HALO Awards

The HALO awards, launched this year by Food News Media, parent company of FSR and QSR magazines, honor restaurant chains making positive contributions to healthy and active consumer lifestyles in two categories: menu innovations and messaging. Silver Diner and Applebee’s were the full-service chains earning recognition in 2014.

Silver Diner has tossed the traditional diner experience on its head and, in the process, emerged a winner in the inaugural HALO awards. Led by Chef Ype Von Hengst, Silver Diner, a Maryland-based chain of 15 units, impressed HALO judges with its ambitious menu transformation. Silver Diner extracted 35 unhealthy menu items and added 25 new health-conscious dishes, including heart-healthy options, vegan selections, gluten-free choices, and entrées with less than 600 calories. A revamped kids’ menu removed french fries and soda and bundled all entrées with healthier sides and beverages, such as strawberries and skim milk.

Chef Von Hengst also improved the quality of traditional diner menu items by incorporating fresh spices and herbs to boost taste, introducing unbleached flour for pancakes, and using lower-sodium sauces for salads and pasta. Many of the new dishes use locally sourced produce and ingredients as well as antibiotic-free meats.

Applebee’s captured an honorable mention HALO award for its revised kids’ menu. Placing a premium on choice with more than 650 potential combinations of entrées, sides, and beverages, Applebee’s rejects a one-size-fits-all approach in favor of a two-tiered, portion-conscious menu.

The HALO awards were presented at a celebratory dinner in Atlanta on Oct. 14. In addition to the full-service winners, quick-serve concepts Bean Sprouts, Boston Market, Chick-fil-A, and LYFE Kitchen also earned recognition. Honorable mentions went to Fresh to Order, Larkburger, and Red Mango.

Feature, Health & Nutrition, Menu Innovations, Philanthropy, Brixx, Carolina Ale House, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, DineEquity, Shula’s Bar & Grill