Healthy Customers, Healthy Profits

Healthy Customers, Healthy Profits

HEALTHY EATS: Industry stars talked shop at the seminar, including George Naddaff (near right) of Knowfat Grille and Perry Crawley, Will Holt and Regynald Washington of ESPN Zone (below).

CONCERN: Dr. Elizabeth Sloan said a big driver of the health trend is Baby Boomers.

Anita Jones-Mueller

DO IT NOW: Elizabeth Pivonka (above) says your customers will expect you to offer more healthful menu items.


HOW DOES A GUY GO from operating 19-units of Kentucky Fried Chicken to masterminding the expansion of Boston Market to backing a concept called KnowFat Lifestyle Grille? By keeping his eyes on trends.

"You get ahead in this business by giving people what they want," explained George Naddaff to nearly 100 foodservice operators in Anaheim recently. "When the demand for takeout home-style meals grew because of hectic lifestyles, we introduced Boston Chicken (which later became Boston Market). Now there is an undeniable demand for better-for-you food. It's not a fad. It's here to stay," says Naddaff, the chairman-and co-c.e.o. of Knowfat Lifestyle Grille.

Naddaff and several other industry experts, including folks from co-sponsor Produce For Better Health Foundation, urged attendees at the Healthy Customers, Healthy Profits Seminar to embrace what may be the most important trend foodservice will face for years to come. Success for many in the future could hinge on how well they embrace the growing consumer movement to eat better, more healthful food.

RH Editor Mike Sanson put the issue in perspective. "Make no mistake, we understand that you are in the business of feeding customers for profit. But we are convinced that you can offer healthful food and make money doing it."

The key, he explained, is that healthful menus items must also taste good.

"We all remember the heart-healthy items on menus years ago. That little red heart next to menu items was the kiss of death," Sanson said. "But it wasn't because those items were healthful, it was simply because they did not taste good."

In 2006, if your cooks can't create menu items that are both healthful and tasty, then you need to find people who can, he said.

Naddaff said the word "healthy" is not used at Know-Fat Lifestyle Grill. He prefers to call it "healthier" or "better-for-you."

"Your customers still want to indulge, but they don't want to pay a heavy price for doing do," he said. "At KnowFat we offer a cheeseburger, but it's a betterforyou cheeseburger because we use a wholewheat bun, low-fat cheese and turkey bacon. And, most importantly, it tastes great."

Naddaff and KnowFat Lifestyle Grill are right on track, said Dr. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends & Solutions, an Escondido, Calif.-based consulting firm. Consumers are demanding more than ever that restaurants offer both a mix of indulgent and healthful menu items.

She cities Technomic studies that conclude that people are "concerned" about the healthfulness of restaurant foods and that more than 80 percent believe restaurants could improve their menus by adding more fruits and vegetables.

A big driver of the health trend, says Sloan, is Baby Boomers, who are looking to eat better while not sacrificing taste. On the other end of the trend, she adds, are Gen Y and Gen X, who are getting the message that eating healthy contributes to a long, robust life.

A robust, healthy life is the bottom line, explained Elizabeth Pivonka, president and c.e.o. of Produce for Better Health Foundation, a non-profit education organization devoted to increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables to improve public health. Your customers of the future will expect you, as restaurant operators, to provide healthful menu options because the handwriting is on the wall, she explained.

Obesity is dramatically on the rise, including among the child population. Pivonka points out that 25 percent of children 5-10 years of age have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other early signs of heart disease due to poor eating habits. She cited a quote from Dr. David Katz of Yale, who said: "Today's kids may be the first generation in history whose life expectancy is projected to be less than their parents."

Restaurants have a responsibility to offer healthy menu items, including fruit and vegetables, which play a large role in preventing a host of diseases. The good news, Pivonka said, is that restaurant operators are getting the message. In a recent survey, 62 percent said they have added "healthful/better-for-you menu items." However, many chain restaurants report that a focus on health and nutrition is not a critical issue.

"When chain restaurants list the key issues that impact their business, their focus is on improving sales and profits, meeting customer demands, monitoring food safety and addressing labor," she said. "Healthy and nutrition is not yet a priority."

Pivonka and others who spoke at the Healthy Customers, Healthy Profits seminar insist that the demand for more healthful menu items is growing and will continue to grow in the years ahead. Restaurant operators who recognize this growing demand now will be quicker to capitalize on the trend.

For those restaurants that do offer healthy menu items, Anita Jones-Mueller talked about a new website, Healthydiningfinder.com, that will become active later this year. The site was designed for Americans who are interested in locating restaurants that offer healthful and nutrition on their menus. The site will also allow operators to promote their healthy menu items to customers searching for healthier choices. For more about the website, turn to the Healthy Eats column on page 92.

Healthy Menus Panel

The day-long examination of the industry's hottest trend ended with a panel chaired by FM Executive Features Editor Mike Buzalka. It featured representatives from four different kinds of operations in the commercial and noncommerical foodservice sectors.

The panelists included:

  • Wynelle Stein, co-owner of the renowned vegetarian/ natural foods Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY;
  • Michael Halter, managing partner of Lucia's Restaurant, an upscale Italian-themed eatery in Pacific Palisades, CA.
  • Patrice Barber, nutritionist for Trojan Hospitality, the inhouse dining operation at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles;
  • Enid Hohn, director of child nutrition services at Vista (CA) USD, a district with nearly 30,000 students.

In her presentation, Stein projected Moosewood's wellknown commitment to healthy, natural eating, especially as it relates to the expectations of today's customers. A co-author of nine Moosewood Collective cookbooks, Stein brought both a culinary and marketing perspective to her comments about the need for both the industry and the public to embrace the principles of healthy eating.

Halter, a veteran restaurateur who grew up in the business, was if anything even more passionate about the need to menu healthful alternatives as a responsibility the foodservice industry has to its customers. He emphasized how at Lucia's he practices what he preaches, with highquality ingredients, many locally sourced and menued in portions that encourage diners to savor their food rather than simply ingest it.

Barber discussed the growing demand on USC's campus for healthier dining options alongside traditional college favorites like burgers and pizza. Making USC's challenge even more daunting is the diverse and sophisticated student body, which expects high quality, authentic dishes representing various ethnic culinary traditions. Barber also emphasized the educational responsibility of Trojan Hospitality in conveying a healthy eating message, including proper nutrition habits, to students both in formal educational materials and in the menu mix.

Hohn emphasized the strategies she and her department have been pursuing in making healthier food options available to the children in her district, which sits in Southern California between Los Angeles and San Diego. Of particular interest is the district's vending program, which she manages and through which she has been able to offer healthier snack and beverage options for several years. She also plans to use the program to introduce vended reimbursable school lunch meals that could take the pressure off the serving lines and offer students a convenient alternative.