Capturing the health-conscious consumer

From Kraft Foodservice.

In the not so distant past, eating out and eating healthy were two very separate events, vegetarian restaurants and those boring “diet” plates—hamburger patty, sliced tomatoes, and scoop of cottage cheese, anyone?—aside. These days, consumers are not only eating away from home more often, but they’re paying more attention to what they’re eating, a realization that hasn’t gone unnoticed by savvy operators.

“There has clearly been across the board—and not just in restaurants, but in all segments—a broad cultural push around eating healthier over the last few years,” says Justin Massa, founder and CEO of Chicago-based research firm Food Genius. “There has been a lot of work to publicize that there are healthier alternatives when eating out.”

Part of that awareness comes in the use of the word “healthy” itself in menus and signage, making it easier for customers to understand what is a healthy option, says Massa. “One of the things I’m continually amazed at is how bad we [as consumers] are at understanding what is healthy when it’s not called out.”

So what can operators do to help enlighten their customers? Plenty. Here are a few tips to help your customers eat healthier:

Never too young. One area that is ripe for operators to get creative with healthy items is on kid’s menus. “Despite the fact that there’s been this push towards healthier eating, chicken fingers, burgers and hot dogs are still ubiquitous on kid’s menus,” says Massa.

Devil is in the details. While the jury is still out on whether listing calories has an effect on what consumers order, recent research in the International Journal of Hospitality Management by Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor of food marketing, offers some insight on what will. Positioning those healthier items prominently on the menu – at the four corners and at the beginning of sections, suggests Wansink—will draw the eye towards them. In addition, don’t hold back when describing the dish, making sure to include enticing ingredients. “The word ‘healthy’ will only appeal to some people,” says Massa. “But a well-described healthy item will appeal to someone for whom taste also matters.”

… But don’t overdo it. Be cautious with the labels you add to your menu and signage.
“You can’t take a burger and describe it as healthy,” says Massa. “There’s a little bit of health halo you can get from reducing carbohydrates or having something be gluten-free. But operators shouldn’t confuse a dietary-friendly item with something that is genuinely healthy.”

Eating healthy doesn’t mean you can’t indulge. When it comes to adult menus, especially for quick-serve restaurants, one way operators could encourage healthy eating is to offer smaller portions of their higher-calorie items. “Decadent snacks have continued to do well despite this push for health because they’re just a snack,” says Massa. “If restaurants offer the same options—a tiny dessert or a smaller shake, for example—they might be able to catch some of those consumers.”