Lighter Menus Appeal to Diners and Owners

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Originally published in The New York Times on February 6, 2013 by Stephanie Strom.

Driven by pressures like consumer demand and looming federal regulations that will require them to post calorie counts on menus, restaurant chains around the country are adding more nutritious choices and shrinking portion sizes.

The smaller portions, which are not necessarily cheaper, are the first step toward reversing the practice of piling more food on a plate than anyone needs in a single meal, a trend that began nearly three decades ago. Besides making a contribution to customers’ health, restaurant owners are finding that the move is paying off financially.

Sbarro for example, is offering a “skinny slice,” with a different mix of cheese and more vegetables at 270 calories. Longhorn Steakhouse has smaller portions of beef that qualify for its lower calorie Flavorful Under 500 menu.

“Menu labeling is part of it, but there’s also been a lot of finger-pointing at the industry by the media and others, including customers, that is spurring the movement,” said Anita Jones-Mueller, a registered dietitian who is president and founder of Healthy Dining Finder, a Web site that helps users find restaurants with healthy options using ZIP codes.

One gauge — the number of restaurants with vetted healthy options listed on the site — has increased more than 2,000 percent, and many have been added just in the last couple of years, Ms. Jones-Mueller said. “Customers really want these items, so restaurants are working to make them more appealing,” she said.

Hank Cardello, director of the obesity solutions initiative at the Hudson Institute, a public policy research organization, has been studying the impact that lower-calorie menu options have on restaurants’ business. “Lower-calorie menu items were driving restaurant growth over the last several years, no doubt about it,” Mr. Cardello said.

The results of his research were published Thursday in a report financed in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The Obama administration’s health care act, which was passed in 2010, included a provision requiring restaurants and food establishments with 20 or more locations to post the calorie counts of standard items on their menus. The final regulations are expected soon, with compliance likely to be required by 2014.

Some restaurant chains have already begun posting calorie counts.

After perusing Longhorn Steakhouse’s lower-calorie menu, Denise Garbinski, a registered dietitian in San Francisco, said the portion sizes were bigger than the four ounces she typically recommended, but that it was “a step in the right direction.”

“What they’re trying to do here is cut back on portion size, which is brilliant,” Ms. Garbinski said. “I always tell people to ask for a to-go container when they first order and then put half of the meal in it before they eat, but this takes that step out of the process.”

While the move by restaurants to more nutritional menu offerings is driven by external factors, many operators are finding that cutting calories, sodium, sugar and fat pays off.

“It’s doing great,” Brian Bailey, co-founder and chief executive of the Ichor Restaurant Group, said of the company’s new restaurant concept, Baja Pizzafish. “To serve fish tacos in Ohio is testament not only that the food tastes good, but that people really want it.”

The chain, which opened in July, offers the option of brown rice in its rice bowls, and three ounces of grilled salmon, steak or shrimp can be added. Mr. Bailey describes the dishes as, “smaller amounts of protein and more fresh vegetables.” Other menu items include thin-crust pizzas with potatoes and other lean toppings, salads and tortilla wraps.

The company also operates the Old Carolina Barbecue Company, a chain of six restaurants. It has added a new menu for its catering operation, the Lighter Side of Old Carolina, that features grilled chicken wraps, carved turkey sandwiches and chicken salad made with light mayonnaise.

“I don’t want to describe this as the anti-barbecue,” he said. “It’s more like I’m hedging my bets on comfort food.”

Matt Friedman, founder and chief executive of Wing Zone, said the company’s decision to add Skinny Dippers, fried chicken breast nuggets with no breading, to its menu in January was as much about business as about offering customers a healthier choice.

The price of chicken wings, the company’s bread and butter, has risen, Mr. Friedman said, so Skinny Dippers are more profitable for the chain. “From a business perspective, when the core product and its price have an impact on profitability, you diversify the menu,” he said.

The chain already offered grilled chicken sandwiches and salads with grilled chicken, but those are “somewhat mainstream,” Mr. Friedman said. “What distinguishes Skinny Dippers is that you can get them in any one of the 17 flavors our regular wings come in,” like Nuclear Habanero and Sweet Samurai.

Skinny Dippers are a limited time offer — or maybe not. “If this is a massive success, we’re going to keep it,” Mr. Friedman said.

Similarly, James Greco, chief executive of Sbarro, said that while the pizza chain had added the lower-calorie slice to capitalize on New Year’s dieting resolutions, the slice now outsells all other slice varieties but cheese and pepperoni. “Although our plan was to have it through March, we’re actually thinking about keeping it,” Mr. Greco said.

Mooyah, a build-a-burger chain based in Frisco, Tex., that dedicates itself to burgers, fries and 100 percent ice cream shakes, put lower-calorie options on its menu to attract a group of customers that Alexis Barnett Gillette, the marketing director, nicknamed “the veto vote.”

“What we found is if you limit yourself to the beef hamburger, there are certainly a growing number of folks who wouldn’t even consider our restaurants,” Ms. Barnett Gillette said. “It could be mom, who’s a vegetarian and may not want to go to a burger restaurant, or turkeytarians or someone with a health restriction of some sort.”

So Mooyah offers the choice of a 200-calorie turkey burger with fewer than 10 grams of fat on a choice of a white or whole wheat bun. It also has a black bean vegetable burger and sweet potato fries, a small portion of which is 255 calories, compared with 278 calories in the same size portion of regular French fries.

Still other restaurants are finding ways to highlight existing options on their menus that make a healthier meal, like Pita Pit’s Resolution Solution. The menu helps customers who build their pitas better understand how to create a healthy option, said Jack Riggs, chief executive of Pita Pit USA.

“When the public starts saying it wants healthier options — and we are hearing that — we have an obligation to help show you what that means in our restaurant and give you choices to help you achieve that,” Dr. Riggs said. “That’s good business.”

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