Food News Media’s 2016 HALO Awards recognize restaurants making meaningful contributions to a healthy, active lifestyle.
Early each morning, Scott Magnuson hangs a sign on his office door at The Argonaut asking for a few moments of tranquility. Employees know, for at least the next 30 minutes, to put any concerns or questions they might have about the coming day on hold. Continuing a practice first learned during a 21-day stay at an in-patient treatment center for substance abuse nearly five years ago, Magnuson meditates, slowing his mind down and turning the focus inward. Later, there will be time for invoices, customer concerns, and the mountain of other duties associated with the daily grind of operating a restaurant. “The benefits of meditation are amazing,” says Magnuson, the owner of the Washington, D.C., venue. “Especially in this industry when everything is so hands-on and fast-paced. Sometimes you lose track of yourself trying to take care of everything else.”
While addressing health and wellness might seem like a novel idea to prioritize, Magnuson says it’s a rampant problem throughout all levels of foodservice, and one that can lead to far bigger issues down the line if left neglected.
At Food News Media, the publisher of FSR and QSR magazines, we couldn’t agree more, and recognizing restaurants that are making meaningful contributions to a healthy, active lifestyle is a priority for our company. For a second year, Food News Media honors restaurants in both the full-service and quick-service sectors with its HALO Awards. The 2016 winners were recognized at a special awards presentation held in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association show on May 22.
At the Argonaut, winner of the Lifestyle Innovations category in the full-service segment, Magnuson and his wife, Shaaren Pine, are letting past struggles and personal trials write their restaurant’s resurgent story. The restaurant maintains a zero tolerance substance abuse policy for all employees and offers employees a $5 stipend per visit to a local gym up to the price of membership. Magnuson is also a willing teacher to anyone interested in learning about meditation. However, their most notable achievement is the creation of a support program. Argonaut is the home of Restaurant Recovery, a nonprofit program open to industry professionals coping with substance abuse. In addition to hosting group sessions on Monday afternoons, Restaurant Recovery aims to cover the expenses of anyone needing in-patient treatment. This extends from paying the cost of the treatement center, which Magnuson says can start at $20,000, to helping cover any family concerns left behind.
“There are so many logistics that people get scared about,” he says, adding that people are often worried about leaving their families or how are they going to pay their bills. “To convince people that they actually have to step away for a little bit is pretty hard.”
This is something Magnuson, who’s 37 years old, speaks openly and honestly about. In July 2011, he hit bottom and headed to Florida for treatment. Magnuson’s daughter, Ara, was 3. He understood his life, as well as his business and career—which began as a dishwasher when he was 14—were in real peril. One of the issues, and perhaps the driving inspiration behind Restaurant Recovery, is the fact that Magnuson’s workplace was a relentless incubator of addiction.
“[Substance abuse] is prevalent industrywide. We’re an industry where we make money off alcohol,” he explains. “And the other thing is, it takes a certain personality to work in a restaurant. When you get a lot of these personalities together and everybody’s been on a very fast-paced and adrenaline-rushing shift, you get done and all of sudden you’re trying to come down off the energy.”
Also, the restaurant setting can distort perspective. “One thing about the industry is that the bottoms are so much lower than in normal professions. I’ve always said, ‘If you have a problem and you work in a bar, you can always find somebody worse [off] to compare yourself to,’ whether it’s another employee, or the regular who is sitting at the bar drinking all day. … We’re firm believers that most restaurant people aren’t going to be able to go to an outpatient treatment center, continue to work in a restaurant, and stay sober. You have to get away for a minute and re-evaluate.”
Restaurant Recovery recently received 501 (c) (3) status and hasn’t had to cover expenses for a patient to date. But Magnuson says he receives calls from restaurants around the country inquiring about the program, and that members of the local community are starting to reach out, either through social media or word of mouth.
“We’re going to be doing a push here now, trying to raise money and get a good pot aside for people,” he says. “We want people [in the restaurant industry] to know we’re here for them, and that there is another way to get support and face this problem.”
Whether it’s Lifestyle Innovations or Menu Innovations—the other category recognized in this year’s HALO awards—there’s an increasing responsibility for operators to promote healthy choices on all fronts. Stacie Sopinka, the vice president of product development and innovation at US Foods, says that studies conducted by the nation’s second-largest food distributor show 82 percent of operators are looking for products with clean ingredients to meet the evolving consumer demand. “That’s pretty remarkable when you realize that the end user doesn’t have visibility to what’s in those products. It’s more about the operators wanting to source products that reflect their values and are what their consumers are looking for,” she notes.
Data collected by The National Restaurant Association says that roughly seven in 10 adults are trying to eat healthier at restaurants than they did two years ago, and that around eight in 10 are paying additional attention to nutritional content. And, given the increased education afforded by digital media, there’s nowhere left to hide. About a third of all adults, the NRA adds, have gone online to get nutritional data on a restaurant.
The movement needs to begin in-house, says Carl Sobocinski, the owner of Table 301 Restaurant Group, a seven-concept group in Greenville, South Carolina, that is the recipient of a 2016 HALO Honorable Mention for Lifestyle Innovation. In October, Sobocinski’s staff asked if the company would cover entry fees for any employee wishing to participate in the Spinx Run Fest. “I agreed right away,” he says.
Sixty-one people signed up, including 12 children of employees. To further build team spirit, Table 301 gave its participants T-shirts reading, “Bringing New Meaning to the Term Food Runner.” A Table 301 manager placed third in his group for the 10K race, running it in 48 minutes, 35 seconds.
Sobocinski says the effort had multiple benefits for his company. “They set up some training for a couple of months prior. They’d train twice a week, and some weeks they’d have 10 or 15 people and other weeks they’d have 30 or 40. And it just got everybody thinking about health and wellness,” he says. “When they came back into the restaurants, they had stories to tell, and they just know each other a little better.”
Table 301, whose Soby’s Restaurant has been a culinary landmark in the area since 1997, has offered healthcare to its employees since day one, as well as discounted gym memberships. Sobocinski says that his restaurants source quality ingredients and make sure to pass the message along to guests.
“It just carries through to the restaurant business,” he says. “We certainly didn’t start any of this, but the world, the nation, our community, is just taking a look at things a little bit differently.”
Similarly, Mellow Mushroom, a chain pizza restaurant with more than 150 locations in the U.S, also promotes a healthy lifestyle by annually supporting the Atlanta Track Club and races near its corporate headquarters in the Peach State’s capital city. The club’s largest event, the Peachtree Road Race, which claims to be the world’s largest 10K race with a roster of around 60,000 participants, features a Mellow Mushroom booth at its vendor show. The restaurant hosts a large activation at the finish line where runners can grab a congratulatory slice of pizza.
Sporting A New Look
In addition to promoting a healthier lifestyle, operators continue to tell their stories through food. At Jonathan’s Grille, the winner of the HALO 2016 Menu Innovations category, owner Mason Revelette had a relatively straightforward concern when he took over the brand six years ago. “I looked at our menu and I said, ‘Man, I can’t eat everything we have here,” he recalls.
Revelette was working as a graduate assistant basketball coach in Indiana when family ties tugged him into the restaurant business. At just 23 years old, along with his brother, Curt, Revelette was suddenly holding the reins of Jonathan’s Grille restaurants, a Nashville, Tennessee–based sports bar concept that—at that time—fit the common mold: Blaring TVs, beer poured in copious amounts, and, of course, a menu that might has well have been dipped in batter and fried.
“Traditionally, that’s how sports bars have operated. But our theory is that anyone can fill a beer. Anyone can sell you some fried wings. But we really want to differentiate ourselves and have some better, healthier, lighter options that people will come and enjoy at times other than just when the big game is on,” Revelette explains.
The brand has expanded to five units with a sixth scheduled for early next year. Shattering the sports bar ceiling has been easier than expected, he notes. “We really feel like people are willing to pay [for] higher quality.”
Revelette says the company expects to hit $15 million in revenue this year and has enjoyed double-digit same-store sales gains for “the last several years.” Not surprisingly, his clairvoyant plan to inject healthy ingredients into the culture has paid off. The bison burger, for example, which comes with freshly sliced avocado, has been the No. 1 selling item behind the traditional cheeseburger. Check averages run about $15, and there are 55 TVs and 30 beers on tap at each location. Additionally, the restaurant offers elevated classics, serving Hereford beef and high-end chicken 100 percent free of antibiotics, hormones, and steroids.
“I think it’s the vibe and the feel,” Revelette says of their success. “It’s a fine balance because you want it to be nice and clean, but it’s comfortable and it’s inviting at the same time. It’s not stuck-up and it’s not pretentious. You can come in wearing a suit and feel comfortable next to a guy in his Peyton Manning jersey. We have something for everybody, and that’s what’s helped us be so successful.”
All In The Family
If there’s such a thing as schoolyard culinary envy, Catcher and Louisiana Sawyer are experiencing it. Yet, having a dad who happens to double as an award-winning chef comes with a certain stipulation. “We have one rule. You have to have vegetables on your plate no matter what,” says Amelia Sawyer, their mother and the wife of Chef Jonathon Sawyer, winner of the 2015 James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes. His Cleveland-based restaurant group, Team Sawyer, operates The Greenhouse Tavern, Trentina, a couple of stadium venues, and Noodlecat.
The latter venue, which is a mashup ramen house, is where the Sawyers share their homespun take on healthy eating with the masses. Typically once a month, from spring to fall, the family hosts Noodle Kids at the 45- to 50-seat downtown locale. Kids put their name on a bowl and head to a table where Amelia, Jonathon, and their two kids, ages 10 and eight, direct the action and answer any queries. There’s everything from seaweed to corn. Some of the combinations are just “gross,” Amelia admits, and all bets are off. Well, except for one. “It’s two veggies and something they haven’t tried,” she says of the program, which draws about 20 families per session and was an Honorable Mention in this year’s HALO Awards.
“I’m not a fan of the traditional kids’ menu because it’s not healthy,” Amelia continues. “I want my kids to be healthy. I want them to make good food choices, and I always want them to have options. I also want them to be treated as though they care about food and are interested [in knowing] about food.”
Jonathon, who ultimately was inspired to write his book Noodle Kids: Around the World in 50 Fun, Healthy, Creative Recipes the Whole Family Can Cook Together, will make smaller portions for younger diners at his other restaurants. “I think our platform at Noodlecat and Noodle Kids has always been about getting the kids engaged on their level. It’s not about tricking them into eating spinach once in a while,” he says.
Transparency is the ethos at Executive Chef/partner Mike Rakun’s Mill Valley Kitchen in Minneapolis. Just like the adult side, Rakun runs all of his kids’ menu dishes through a food processor nutrition analysis software from ESHA. “It’s got a database, like 20,000 or 30,000 ingredients in it,” Rakun says. “So basically we write a recipe and we test it in the kitchen. We make sure it’s the way we want it to taste and then we load it, we create the recipes for our kitchen, and put into our nutritional software.”
The information delves as deep as amino acid content. Once revealed, Rakun can analyze and alter the dish to meet his healthy demands. He then displays the nutritional guidelines right on the menu, directly under each selection. On the kid’s page, guests know the calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein of every item. There’s a veggie burger, pappardelle with Bolognese, a quinoa waffle, and macaroni and cheese built on a butternut squash base, among others. Like the Sawyers, Rakun says his inspiration started at home, where his three children, ages 12, 8, and 4, developed a slightly different palate than he was used to. “At our house, meat is definitely not the center of attention. It’s tons of vegetables and grains,” he says. “The vegetables in my house are typically the first ones to go. That’s what everybody’s fighting over. There’s always meat left over, which is kind of reversed from when I was a kid.”
The kids’ meals at Mill Valley Kitchen are served bento box style, with some edamame, fruit, and beverage options that don’t advertise any sodas or sugary drinks.
Rakun, who also runs Marin Restaurant & Bar, says operators don’t need to think too far from the sandbox when crafting children’s cuisine. “I think the take on it is to offer familiar foods that are healthy for them. There’s a lot of kids out there who are pretty picky, so you’ve got to give them something that they know,” he says. “I think it’s important. They’re diners too, right?”
And that education extends to young chefs as well as young people. At The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, the restaurant Pangea popped up in 2015. The plant-forward concept is slated to return in 2016, shining the focus once again on plates where vegetables accept starring roles. In the past, a 10-course tasting menu served only two or three meat/fish items. Pangea is also a teaching kitchen at the college, where students learn about healthy and sustainable cuisine.
This is the second presentation of HALO Awards, following the inaugural contest in 2014. That year, in the full-service category, Maryland-based Silver Diner, which has 15 locations on the East Coast, earned an award for its revamped adult and kids’ menu. Applebee’s also took home an honorable mention for its kids’ menu revamp. The other 2014 winners were quick-service restaurants Bean Sprouts, Boston Market, Chick-fil-A, and LYFE Kitchen. This year’s quick-service winners are Chick-fil-A and Pizza Hut, while Wendy’s, sweetFrog, and PizzaRev earned honorable mentions.
A Toast to Good Health
Food News Media announces the 2016 winners:
- The Argonaut: Owner Scott Magnuson and his wife, Shaaren Pine, launched the non-profit Restaurant Recovery to help restaurant workers with personal struggles.
- Pizza Hut: Supporting employee health with discounts at gyms, health screenings, and annual incentives for healthy behaviors.
- Jonathan’s Grille: Traditional sports bar fare was transformed with a menu of healthly options, including 14 signature salads and classics made with better ingredients.
- Chik-fil-A: Sides stepped up with healthy additions like Broccolini, kale, and a Superfood Side that has just 140 calories and 7 grams of fat in a 5-ounce portion.
- Noodlecat: Chef Jonathon Sawyer introduces children to healthy eating via the Noodle Kids program, where they build their own ramen bowls with vegetables and healthy choices.
- Table 301 Restaurant Group: Owner Carl Sobocinski not only paid the entry fee for any employee wishing to run in the Greenville, South Carolina, Spinx Run Fest, he also jumped into the race himself.
- PizzaRev: The chain’s PizzaResolution Campaign showed how to incorporate pizza into health and wellness routines.
- sweetFrog: Company videos posted on Instagram and Facebook with Sports Tips on exercise and best practices.
- Wendy’s: Dave would be proud: Wendy’s commitment to healthy eating shines with its introduction of a Black Bean Burger to the menu.