In January, consumer research brand Mintel reported that 80 percent of family restaurant-goers are eating out less due to budgetary reasons. When they do go out, they’re looking for healthy options, menu items they like, and fresh food.
Promoting health has become key to attracting consumers, from the R&D stage to marketing a customizable-friendly attitude.
“One, make the food flavorful and inviting—not something diners can easily prepare at home,” she says. “Like any of the other customers, health conscious consumers still want to have the dining experience.”
Second, restaurant operators should routinely and properly educate the staff on how the food is prepared and which low-calorie options are available.
Casual dining chains have caught on to the trend: Chili’s has Guiltless Grills, Applebee’s offers acceptable Weight Watchers meals, Mimi’s Café has Fresh & Fit, O’Charley’s has 500 Calories or Less, and the list goes on.
According to Mintel, simply creating a menu with reduced fat content or simpler preparation methods does not necessarily equate to sales. Mintel says the challenge for restaurants is that historically, diners associate healthy food with flavorless fodder.
Where “Healthy” Has a Good Reputation
“If you pre-suppose that healthy equals tasteless, that’s probably where you’re going to arrive,” says Tim Miner, director of marketing for Brixx. “If you take the challenge and say, ‘Hey, there are lots of ingredients and flavors we can play with,’ then the results can be very exciting both for you and your guests.”
Brixx, which has 21 locations across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, offers guests the option to create pizzas with whole wheat and gluten-free crust, as well as with vegan cheese.
Miner says that rather than compromise the menu, appealing to a broad scope of dietary needs has enhanced the Brixx menu.
“Once you’ve made the decision to provide your guests and your diners a wider array of options, especially healthy options, all that does is give you another creative platform from which you can work,” he explains.
Chefs at An Nhau in New York also pay close attention to preparation methods to ensure guests eat light, healthful, filling meals.
Chef Dung Trinh says the restaurant focuses on obtaining the freshest produce and ingredients, which then lend themselves to healthful cooking.
“There’s a lot of steamed stuff, and the stuff that’s fried, we use minimum oil,” Trinh explains. “Chinese food is very oily and uses heavy sauces, while we have light sauces.”
Where Loyalty Breeds Sales
Both Brixx and An Nhau demonstrate that restaurants willing to customize create a healthy following.
Miner says no two people eat in exactly the same way, and restaurants have a responsibility to make an effort. He points to Brixx’s managing partner, Jeff VanDyke, whose wife and daughter are vegetarians and one of whom is vegan.
“It’s not a huge market out there, but those people are very loyal and they go out of their way to find a place they can get a vegan pizza with non-dairy cheese, because of one member of their family who may have dietary options,” VanDyke says.
Trinh says he too has noticed a rise in vegetarian diners lately who order strictly tofu and vegetable dishes.
“I feel the same way, that you need a protein, but you don’t need a meat. There’s a lot of other proteins,” he says, naming almonds, beans, and soy products as an alternative. “We don’t discriminate from any kind of food. As long as it’s fresh and tasty, we eat it.”
Much like the Brixx managers, Trinh says the gluten-free trend is evident in his restaurant.
Miner says offering gluten-free, vegan, and a selection of vegetarian options is akin to playing the restaurant trump card.
“We see a lot of families and groups of friends who come in, and what will happen is, someone who has a dietary need, restriction, or desire will trump the others,” he explains. “So, when you’re looking at restaurant options that are out there, a restaurant that offers more options, vegan or vegetarian options included, stays on the table.”
Bringing an entire group of people into a restaurant for one person’s needs thus informs many more of the restaurant, potentially creating repeat business.
At An Nhau, Trinh says repeat customers come because, "after they eat, they feel satisfied and full, they enjoy the flavors that we offer them, but they don't feel heavy or bloated. They come because they feel healthy and they know they're putting something good into their body."
Where Nutrition is the Promoter
Once a restaurant has healthy dietary alternatives, getting the word out relies on the steady customers as much as it does on standard marketing techniques.
“We [promote our healthy options] on our outside advertising, and routinely mention that we have gluten-free options because that’s become more prevalent in the last couple years,” VanDyke says.
Easily customizable meals also show the guest that the restaurant cares about what people eat, Miner says.
“The fact that we’re able to do that, we feel it tells them that we have something for everyone and they’re important to us, and their dietary decisions are something that we try to take into consideration,” he explains.
Trinh says health is personally important to him because, “I eat a Vietnamese diet. I want my friends to live as long as I do.”
He reflects upon his upbringing while cooking at An Nhau, remembering how his mother made well-rounded, traditional Vietnamese meals nightly of soup, a protein, rice, and salad.
“It’s balanced, compared to having a giant steak and a potato and a small salad,” he says. “You miss out on all the vitamins and minerals you get from raw vegetables and good carbs, like rice.”
Dr. Jo Lichten says the most profitable approach to healthy eating will involve restaurants that build nutritious meals from the ground up.
“In the future, successful restaurants will be those that design healthier options with the same forethought as any of their other signature items, not just an original offering minus an ingredient or two,” she says.
“Health conscious diners want to feel indulged, not deprived.”
By Sonya Chudgar