As the Dec. 1 deadline looms, restaurants contract with labs to test their dishes while kissing local menu-labeling regulations goodbye.
As the date nears for enforcing federal menu-labeling regulations, numerous full-service restaurants are putting the finishing touches on their compliance plans.
Companies with 20 or more units must accede by Dec. 1. Restaurants covered by the law must list the calorie counts for regular food items and beverages, and nutritional information must be available in writing on request. Daily or seasonal food or drink specials are exempted, as are beverages not listed on menus.
The rules are meant to help consumers make informed and healthful dietary choices.
However, facilitating this decision-making has proved to be an onerous process for restaurants. Determining nutrition information can be a pricey procedure, reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars to acquire specific data for a large menu.
“Most full-service restaurant companies would say they are prepared for this,” says Scott DeFife, who was the executive vice president, policy and government affairs, at the National Restaurant Association. “If the rule is new to you, you’ve got some catching up to do.” (DeFife left his position at the NRA in March.)
Some elucidation is still being sought from the Food and Drug Administration, which was tasked by 2010’s Affordable Care Act with developing the rules. The FDA released the final requirements in late 2014.
The NRA is working to clarify parts of the regulations and get more guidance from the FDA. One issue revolves around the certification process for determining the menu’s nutritional information, and another involves alcoholic beverages.
An issue that remains is whether a person at each restaurant must be certified to determine nutritional information or if that can be handled company-wide. The alcoholic beverage matter in question is whether a range of calories can be listed for draft beer and wine.
While the standards for restaurants grew out of regulations for labeling packaged food, there are inherent differences. “Any manufactured food is the same: A Cheerio is a Cheerio,” DeFife says. “But in hand-prepared environments, there will be greater variability.”
“It is important to have precise information about all of the ingredients” on the menu and to affirm that the information is accurate, says Erica Bohm, vice president and director of strategic partnerships with Healthy Dining Finder, a California-based nutrition research company.
One item that will drive up the cost, for instance, is fried food, she says. “Deep-fried items should be lab-analyzed, not done through software. The only way to say how much oil is absorbed in the food is to do a chemical analysis.”
Cost was a major factor when California’s menu-labeling law went into effect in 2011.
“It’s more than just slapping information on a menu,” says Janna Haynes, spokeswoman at the California Restaurant Association. “It means hiring a lab, getting all your food tested, and having all that information readily available.”
The federal law may be beneficial, however, for some restaurant companies that have faced a growing patchwork of state and local menu-labeling laws. These chains already have gone through much of the nutritional research effort.
“Frankly, it’s better to have one standard, rather than every city, county, and state having different ones,” says Saed Mohseni, chief executive of the 114-unit Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, based in Columbus, Ohio.
Bravo and Brio restaurants have seen little difference in what consumers choose in the jurisdictions that require menus to list calories.
A lighter menu featuring items with 595 calories or fewer was added company-wide in 2013; while it was designed to be more responsive to guest demand, the company says it also aligned strategically with the upcoming regulations.
With prices similar to other lunch and dinner menu items, the light menu includes dishes such as Brio’s 500-calorie Grilled Salmon Fresca with grilled asparagus, sweet potatoes, spinach, roasted peppers, pesto vinaigrette, Feta, diced tomatoes, and balsamic glaze.
Light items represent 20 percent of sales at Brio and 17 percent at Bravo.
“Most are made with spices and herbs versus cream and butter, and that makes a difference,” Mohseni adds.
Although restaurants face a learning curve in meeting menu-labeling rules and time is required to put these programs in place, Mohseni says the federal regulations “are still flexible enough that they allow chefs to create daily specials in different markets.”
Other companies are still determining their menus in light of the labeling regulations and are timing their regular menu refreshes—typically done every 12 to 18 months—for December.
Abuelo’s, the Lubbock, Texas–based operator of nearly 40 Mexican restaurant units, has been in contact with the NRA for guidance regarding the menu standards. It also hired a consulting nutritionist to analyze the company’s recipes and create a dietary database.
“We’ve waited for final guidance before we create our updated menu,” says Kevin Carroll, vice president of training. “We’ll probably be ready to go in the late spring or early summer with a test menu in seven to 10 restaurants.”
Customer demand led Abuelo’s to add lighter fare and smaller portions to a traditionally heavy Mexican menu. Other changes will be required to provide precise calorie counts.
“We will have to create a section in the menu for our side items,” Carroll explains. While many regular entrées include sides such as rice and refried beans, for instance, “some guests like to substitute other items, like mixed vegetables or spinach casserole.”
The new rules also will lead operators to conduct updated staff training, according to Healthy Dining’s Bohm.
“Standardization is more important both inside and outside of the kitchen,” she says. “Servers can’t just tell the chef to add twice the sour cream to an entrée for a favorite guest. That won’t do.”