The Paleo diet may be so 'easy a caveman could do it,' but getting consumers inspired to eat at a restaurant offering the type of cuisine our earliest ancestors ate may be difficult.
As the the owner of Dick's Kitchen, a restaurant in Oregon with a Paleo-based menu, Richard Satnick has been following the diet consisting of lean meat and a lot of veggies for years. He's convinced that the Paleo paradigm, as he calls it, is the answer to America's growing obesity problem. His goal is to spread the word about how delicious healthy food can be.
"I get so excited about it that I want to talk about it all the time, but with customers you have to be subtle, said Satnick, who also owns Laughing Planet Café, a fast casual restaurant chain specializing in healthy burritos and bowls. "You want to tell them about it, but you don't want to be pigeon holed as some weird establishment or someone who's on a moral crusade to change world."
Satnick, who said following Paleo has alleviated his arthritis symptoms, helped him drop 40 pounds and gotten him off of all his blood pressure medicine, opened the first Dick's Kitchen last year in Portland. The second location opens in a few weeks in Northwest Portland. Both restaurants compete in the "better burger category, serving burgers made from only 100-perecent grass fed beef. It also features other lean protein choices including elk, buffalo, salmon and turkey. Side dishes include a variety of veggie dishes fit for the Paleo eater. They include mashed sweet potatoes, pickled veggies and what Satnick calls "Not-Fries," air-baked, hand-cut potatoes with no salt but served with a variety of dipping sauces.
"What people don't realize is that grass-fed beef is so delicious; it just tastes better, and it just so happens that it's better for you, too," Satnick said.
The Paleolithic diet, also often called the caveman diet or hunter-gatherer diet, promotes eating what people consumed during the Paleolithic era—a period of about 2.5 million years that ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. The modern-day version of the diet centers around eating 100 percent, grass-fed pasture raised meats, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts. It excludes grains, legumes, most dairy products, salt, refined sugar and processed oils.
Paleo is one of the healthiest ways to eat, according to Loren Cordain, author of the Paleo Diet, who said he's not surprised that a restaurant would center a menu around the eating program. In fact, he expects more restaurants to get on board as the population realizes its benefits.
"Recent randomized controlled trials show Paleo to be superior to Mediterranean diets, diabetic diets and the U.S.D.A. MyPlate diet in terms of nutrient density and health outcomes," he said. "On top of that it is delicious. A series of Paleo cookbooks have been published in the last year showing just how tasty real, unadulterated, fresh food can be."
How it works
According to Cordain, what society has taught us about how to lose weight is wrong.
"Conventional wisdom tells us that to lose weight we must burn more calories than we take in and that the best way to accomplish this is to eat a plant-dominated, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. The first part of this equation is still true -- a net caloric deficit must occur in order for weight to be lost, Cordain said on this website. "However, the experience for most people on low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diets is unpleasant. They are hungry all the time, and for the vast majority, any weight lost is regained rapidly or within a few months of the initial loss. "
He also points out that there are more than 6 billion people alive on the planet in the 21st century, and that cereal grains provide more than half of the energy required to feed the world's people. Without cereal grains, there would be massive starvation of unprecedented proportion.
"We have walked down a path of absolute dependence upon cereal grains -- a path that cannot be reversed. However, in most western countries, cereals are not a necessity, particularly in many segments of the population that suffer most from Syndrome X and other chronic diseases of civilization. In this population, a return to a Stone Age Diet is not only possible, but highly practical in terms of long-term health care costs."
Knowing how effective Paleo could be in helping Americans with health issues, Satnick said he struggles with how to get his point across without alienating the customers who don't care.
To market or not to market?
Although Satnick admits he's thought about donning a caveman suit and shouting his message to the world, he doesn't think that's the smartest way to go.
"It's rough; how do you talk to your customers? I love the Paleo lifestyle, but I know not everyone does, so I'm not sure it's the basis of a true marketing campaign."
For that reason, Dick's Kitchen's décor doesn't include cavemen mascots or posters about Paleo; in fact, it looks like a typical NYC diner.
"There's some info about Paleo on table tents and on the menu, but we don't really market it that much because you can't hit people over the head with it," Satnick said. "We want to appeal to a broad group, and who doesn't love great burgers? But there are also subgroups of folks looking for gluten free, Paleo and low-carb options. We recognize that but aren't going to pin our identity on it. "
At the end of the day, Satnick's goal is to provide a fun place for people to hang out and enjoy a really good burger.
"The best way to do this is to just let them eat and then start the conversation if they are into (learning)," Satnick said. "I've learned that some folks don't want to hear about all this; but most want to eat a good hamburger and not spend a fortune. They have to love the food, and then we surprise them when they find out how healthy it is."
Is Paleo a fad?
One only has to look back on how quickly restaurants embraced the Atkin's diet to see that diets come and go even in the restaurant industry. Satnick, however, strongly believes Paleo is here to stay.
"Of course if it's a fad, you don't want to be left as yesterday's news if the public's attention moves, so it's a challenge to know how much of it to deploy," he said. "But I don't think the underlying issues are a trend or a fad. Paleo will change how the medical community looks at health and the obesity epidemic; it's gonna take time; there's so much old interest in the old paradigm, but it will happen."
Robb Wolf is a former research biochemist and author of the New York Times Best Seller, "The Paleo Solution – The Original Human Diet."
"I believe this is here to stay," he said. "We now have thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people who have reversed a host of diseases. I suspect that creates a lifetime Paleo devotee."
Spreading the word
Satnick isn't sure how far the Dick's Kitchen concept will go. He plans to open another restaurant in Oregon before thinking about branching out of the state with others. He's also not sure if Dick's should stay burger focused, pointing out that the better burger category is saturated these days with the Smashburgers of the world.
The question is rather if he can build a brand around the fact that his burgers are 100 percent grass fed and that all his food is local.
"When we talk about our rancher, you get to meet her; you hear the story and about how we are preserving jobs and generations of knowledge of ranching in a sustainable way; about how humanely the animals are treated," he said. "We do want to tell that story, but it has to be delicate so that it's incorporated into our brand --so we don't have to stand up and lecture."
Satnick isn't sure if the concept will fly, but he's going to try.
"Can we build a unique brand that this is 100 percent the full monty? Can we ride this Paleo thing? I don't know, but if you don't try you'll never know," he said. "And it's worth it; I know we could solve the health care problem in this country with this lifestyle; why not stop these health problems before they start?"
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Cherryh Butler has been a reporter for nearly 10 years, writing on a variety of topics ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining FastCasual.com as editor, she oversaw KioskMarketplace.com and PizzaMarketplace.com and contributed to RetailCustomerExperience.com. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.