A Different Type of Animal
By Dan Malovany
Unlike the supermarket shopper, the foodservice consumer rarely thinks of health. That’s why so many restaurant chains only give lip service to nutrition.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans want to lose weight. More than half of them are concerned about everything from cholesterol and trans fat to sugar, total calories, saturated fat and total fat.
Still, according to a Technomic Consumer Study, more than 90% of adults know they overeat, snack too much, eat too many fried or fatty foods and live a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, 96% of the 1,600 people surveyed acknowledge that the biggest culprit is a lack of exercise.
“Consumers clearly understand what’s behind the obesity problem,” says Tom Miner, principal at Chicago-based Technomic Information Services.
So who’s to blame?
Consumers blame themselves. Fewer than half of them told Technomic in a study on healthy eating that they fully understood the health issues impacting Americans. At the same time, those surveyed indicated that they are not changing their eating behavior as a result.
That’s especially true when eating out, where consumers act like a different type of animal than their retail-shopping counterparts. For many, the foodservice channel still is seen as an opportunity to indulge. At the same time, products such as desserts are suffering from declining consumption, Miner notes.
At first glance, that may appear contradictory, but the term “indulgence” means much more to the foodservice consumer than to the retail shopper.
Whereas death-by-chocolate might be the ultimate dessert for the shopper who eats at home, indulgence is more of an experience when dining out. It might involve not only consuming dessert, but also indulging in French fries or some other normally forbidden food in the company of friends and family.
Perhaps of no shock to anyone, 92% of adults feel that eating out is all about splurging and having fun, according to consumer research conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). In fact, more than 70% of adults said they are less concerned about the nutritional value of the food they eat while dining out for a special occasion, the NRA notes.
For savvy suppliers to casual-dining chains, quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and other dining establishments, understanding consumer behavior and attitudes toward eating out is critical to comprehending the nuances of the foodservice customer.
Take the issue of healthful products. On menus, the healthy heart symbol was initially intended to improve sales by alerting nutrition-minded consumers to which items were prepared in a healthful manner.
Unfortunately, over time, the healthy heart began to symbolize an item that was long on nutrition and short on taste. As a result, healthful items don’t always sell well in an indulgent environment. Even simple substitutions on the menu can lead to waste. Wendy’s International, for instance, stopped offering fruit cups and fruit bowls on its menu last year because they did not sell.
“There was no way they were moving enough of it to cover their yield loss of throwing [unused product] away,” says Jerry Smiley, founder and managing partner of Roselle, Ill.-based Strategic Growth Partners.
But some good-tasting, fresh and not necessarily better-for-you items do play a role, adds Smiley, who long has been a proponent of the “veto vote” theory of dining. The theory goes like this: If one person in a group doesn’t eat fried foods, for instance, it’s bad news for anyone else who wants to go to a burger joint because that one vote, especially from a decision-maker such as a parent, often is enough to force the rest of the group to consider an alternate eating establishment.
To broaden their customer base by eliminating the “veto vote,” many QSRs have added soups, salads, broiled chicken and more to their menus. Some of these items might not be best sellers, but the hope is that they will bring in more customers.
At the same time, restaurants are not eliminating fried chicken breast sandwiches and other items perceived to be unhealthy, Miner notes, resulting in menu expansion. Although eating establishments are providing lower-fat and reduced-calorie options, they’re definitely not adding many organic items to the menu, because the ingredients are too expensive, and consumer demand isn’t there, Miner adds.
Nor are they reducing portion sizes, which consumers blame for causing them to overeat. Although hefty helpings create a perception of value, Miner explains that many consumers simply can’t resist cleaning their plates. Sad to say, too many Americans follow the philosophy of: “The more there is to me, the more there is to love.”
The good news, notes Miner, is that consumer intentions and eating behaviors are converging at an accelerated rate. Such a development is encouraging for producers of fresh-baked goods, custom sandwiches, fruits and salads and other products perceived as better for you. Unfortunately, that might mean bad news for doughnuts, sodas, desserts, salty snacks, fried foods and carbonated beverages, Miner says. Watch for chefs and foodservice chains to re-engineer their menus in the near future.