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Can You Make it Healthy and Taste Great?

This month's issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine is reporting on a Healthy Menu Study that concludes, in part, that most restaurant chain executives are primarily concerned about growing sales and increasing profits. Only a small portion of chain executives named health and nutrition as important concerns. The bottom line is that a majority of chains interviewed said they will not add healthful menu items unless they are confident that those items will contribute to increased sales.

This response of chain executives, writes study author Dr. Karen Glanz, ". . . is the general belief that such [healthful menu] products have not generated profits for their business and their competitors."

Historically speaking, the lack of interest in nutritionally sound menu items is warranted. But if one runs a business based solely on the historical dining-out habits of customers, we'd still be wearing polyester leisure suits and eating nouvelle cuisine.

Recent surveys and studies conclude that there is a growing tide among American consumers to improve their diets and eat more healthfully. That is not to suggest restaurant customers aren't looking for indulgent menu items when they dine out, but emerging trends indicate that restaurants have to seriously consider offering a mix of indulgent and healthful menu items.

According to a recent issue of Market Brief, half of consumers surveyed said "I don't worry about whether it is good for me, I order what sounds like it will taste the best." On the other hand, more than a third said "the last time I ate at a restaurant I ordered something that would be considered healthy and nutritious." Both of these responses suggest an obvious point: restaurants have to do a better job of offering healthful menu items that will blow customers away.

That point was made clear years ago when some restaurants put a heart symbol next to menu items designated as heart-healthy. As it turned out, that symbol was the kiss of death, not because those menu items were healthy, but rather because they didn't taste good. Therein lies the holy grail: if you can create healthful menu items that taste great, customer will eat them alive.

Since last year, this magazine has been staging one-day events called Healthy Customers, Healthy Profits (HCHP). The object is to convince operators that they can make money selling healthful menu items. A regular cast member of that rolling roadshow has been Cliff Pleau, director of culinary development for Darden's Seasons 52. No dish on Pleau's menu contains more than 475 calories, and the restaurant concept is a runaway hit.

It's interesting to note that beyond mentioning the 475-calorie point, Seasons 52 does not stress the health aspect of the concept. It focuses more on how great the food tastes. Turn to page 86 for a wrapup story on our last HCHP seminar. And consider attending the next one Sept. 27 in Baltimore.

Pleau says Darden believed the concept would mainly attract aging baby boomers, but many of its customers are much younger, suggesting that the tide is turning. Are you prepared?

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