How the menu-labeling ruling will drive traffic to fast casual brands
Only a few days remain between now and the May 5 federal deadline requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations to add nutritional information to menus. While many brands are worried about the regulations' potential effect on long-term consumer behavior, many fast casual brands, which are often associated with using high-quality ingredients to create healthful offerings, are using the ruling as a way to attract more customers.
"We think the new mandate is terrific," said Steve Schluze, co-founder and CEO, Nekter Juice Bar, who predicted that the transparency requirement would actually drive traffic to his business. "Consumers deserve to know what they are putting in their bodies."
Many of the old-school operators offered menu items perceived as healthy but were actually filled with additives and processed ingredients that had little to no nutritional value, Schulze said.
"We believe the mandate will actually increase traffic and sales at our restaurants as guests continue to be more mindful of what they eat," he said.
Jeff Jacobsen, COO of Costa Vida, who described his customers as "sophisticated and knowledgeable," agreed, saying that although Costa Vida has always been upfront with nutritional information, most other brands aren't. The ruling forces the rest of the competition to be more transparent, which will only help Costa Vida.
"Customers are putting a magnifying glass up to the nutrition in their food while demanding more transparency, especially as more and more of them adhere to a wide variety of dietary restrictions and preferences," Jacobsen said. "The industry needs to embrace the fact that it is time to lift the veil on our menus, so that we can create lasting, trusting and authentic relationships with our customers."
Making nutritional information easily available is nothing new at Sharky's Woodfired Mexican Grill. The California-based chain has been transparent with its ingredients since 2010, when the state issued a law similar to the federal requirements.
"When we began the process to be compliant with California’s mandate, we invested approximately $20,000 to develop a comprehensive, user-friendly nutritional calculator on our website and various collateral materials with the same information," said COO David Goldstein, who expects the federal mandate to have zero effect on the chain's operations.
"For 25 years now, Sharky’s has been committed to sourcing the best ingredients that are the foundation of a variety of menu items that meet our guests’ different lifestyle choices. Because our menu is made-to-order, guests can order based on their dining preferences. Some may prefer to indulge while others may be concerned about nutritional content, and factors like calories, fat, gluten content and meat and dairy product content.
Jacobsen said the same is true at Costa Vida, where average calorie counts are available for each menu item.
"We have also used Healthy Dining to create all nutritional information that we can use for a calculator, menu calorie counts and to provide a comprehensive list of each item and its nutritionals," he said. "Beyond wanting to meet compliance standards, Costa Vida also has a very comprehensive nutrition calculator on our website and loyalty app. The calculator can give the exact nutritional details for a meal at Costa Vida. Whether it is something straight off the menu or customized, our calculator can provide the data necessary for our health-conscious guests.
But what if you aren't a brand defined by the health halo? Will customers stop ordering certain items if they easily see the number of calories?
"Not at all for some, and most definitely for others," said Betsy Craig, CEO, MenuTrinfo LLC, a company that specializes in menu labeling. She's seen research on both sides of the debate over the years from areas of the country where there has been regional menu labeling requirements in advance of the Federal Mandate.
"I really do believe some will make changes to what they order while others couldn't care less," she said.
Take, for example, Starbucks' recent four-day LTO — the Unicorn Frappuccino. Although most customers knew it contained more sugar than three Snickers Bars, most locations sold out before the LTO was officially over.
"More than half the comments I saw about the exciting new offering from Starbucks had a mention of the sugars, calories or some sort of reference to the nutritional information provided," Craig said.
People who already care about eating healthful, have special diets or are working on weight loss will appreciate the nutritional info and may gravitate concepts that offer a variety of healthy choices.
"Many folks eat out as a treat but in 2017, a great deal of diners eat out daily as a way of life," Craig said. "With the world paying more attention today to weight, the numbers will matter. Also, this will impact greatly the brands of less the 20 locations since they are not mandated to provide the nutritional information. They will be vying for the same diner and competing against brands that are fully nutritionally transparent."
Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for FastCasual.com.www