|Julie Meddles. R.D., is associate director, nutrition and foodservice, at The Ohio State University Medical Center|
As a Nutrition Services department in an Academic Medical Center, our primary business is delivering food and nutrition in the healthcare setting. That leads quickly to one of our primary dilemmas: how can we more effectively offer “healthy” food to retail customers that is viable from a purchasing, production and sales perspective?
Put more succinctly, how do you make “healthy” food a more attractive option in retail cafés? Consumers say they want such choices, but when they are presented, foods labeled as such frequently don’t sell. Research suggests many reasons for this, most of them tied to consumer perceptions.
Some of these perceptions were created when customers tried foods in this category in the past. For example, the first generation of fat-free foods offered consumers flavor profiles and textures that didn’t exactly yield rave reviews!
There are marketing issues as well. Do we market healthful foods less aggressively because we worry they won’t sell? And what should be labeled “healthy” in the first place? This can be especially confusing in healthcare, where low-fat, heart-healthy foods offered to employees and guests are quite different than the calorie and nutrient-dense foods required by chemotherapy patients. In that sense, “healthy” is a relative term.
How much does the price of a menu item determine whether the item sells? More healthful food offerings can cost more to purchase, stock and serve; their serving and portion sizes often are smaller than other options. How do such differences affect whether customers are willing to pay the going price for these meals?
At OSUMC, our Nutrition Services management team brainstormed ideas to address these myriad issues and settled on a Healthy Food Event Campaign Calendar as an ongoing strategy. The concept is similar to short-term special offer promotions in that we incorporate a healthy food type as part of a special event each month.
Special events are always very popular and often serve to make our cafés the destination restaurant of choice for the theme day. Healthful foods, featured as part of a one, help draw attention to nutrition in a very public and positive way. Our chefs challenge themselves to develop menu items that are flavorful, appealing and unique.
For example, grilled paninis made for our National Heart Month event in February generated almost $2500 in sales. Standard meal entrees generate less than $1000. More than 500 customers selected a grilled panini that day for lunch.
By gauging sales and customer response, we receive instant feedback that guides us in developing future menu selections. Theme days also give us a way to “test drive” healthful menu options. and provide a venue where we can exercise our role as organizational providers of food and nutrition education (see sidebar examples).
Because of our healthcare affiliation, we have unique expertise that many commercial restaurant and B&I foodservice operators would relish—on staff nutrition experts. By creating a focused effort around healthful food and nutrition education, we are able to demonstrate more value to our customers and hospital leaders.
For example, during National Soy Month,we offered soy powder pancakes and creamy fruit smoothies using vanilla soy milk. Our thinking was that, by providing customers a positive experience with soy ingredients, they will be encouraged to try these foods at home.
We also seek external partners to lend credibility, marketing expertise, and resources for our events. For example, in May of this year we partnered with the Ohio Poultry Association to bring Howard Helmer, the world’s fastest omelet maker, to OSU. Our theme was, “Eggs just aren’t for breakfast anymore.” Howard provided a live omelet-cooking demonstration during two separate sessions. All staff who attended made omelets with help from our department omelet coaches, a fun and interactive way to educate our customers.
In general, consumers are inundated with nutrition messages, many of them mixed. One of our goals is to communicate clear and consistent nutrition information. Our staff of 18 registered dietitians serve as our brain trust and define the concept of “healthy” for the foods to be served. They also create nutrition “take away” messages tht include recipes and recipe analyses.
This information is incorporated into marketing materials with additional, interesting information about the featured foods. During January’s theme, the take-away materials focused on the history of soup, offered fun facts about it and explained which types are best incorporated into a healthful diet. At Ohio State, football season would not be complete without an annual tailgating event, and that provided us with another promotional opportunity. Our nutrition message was, “Tailgating: Eat as a Spectator, Not a Player.”
Special events also provide us with a way to address pricing because customers often will pay a premium over regular entree prices for special event offerings. We typically bundle entrees and sides as a full meal, increasing value to the customer. It also increases our usual check average and daily customer counts by 15-20% during the event. However, the primary intent is not to drive profit, but to bring excitement and a change of pace to hospital staff, which makes up 90% of our customer base.
The bottom line is that some customers want more healthful food options while others don’t. Our Healthy Food Event Campaign helps us market to both groups and educate the latter. It also lets us engage our culinary and clinical staff, satisfy our health mission, serve a vocal customer contingent and offer a fun event for the rest.