Menu Labeling: They’ll Eat Better, But Order Slower

Menu Labeling: They’ll Eat Better, But Order Slower

Think chain restaurants have all the advantages? They’ve got plenty, but the calorie-posting mandate embedded in the new health care bill sure isn’t one of them. It’s not the cost of compliance, sizable as that might be. It’s the slower service times that could result as bewildered customers stand transfixed by information-laden menus and menu boards as they contemplate their orders. For once, independent operators just might have an edge

It’s going to take a while before the full effect of mandatory calorie posting becomes evident. First, the Food and Drug Administration has to write new regulations that will govern the process and decide on the specific timetable for implementation. Then, restaurant chains having more than 20 units will have to have nutritional analysis performed on their menu items. Exempt from this requirement are specials that will be offered for 60 days or less, test market items and condiments. All this nutritional information will then have to be incorporated on printed menus and menu boards, directly adjacent to the items it describes.

And that’s not all. The new law also requires “a succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake” must be “posted prominently on the menu and designed to enable the public to understand, in the context of a total daily diet, the significant of the caloric information that is provided on the menu.” In other words, foodservice menus for chains of 20 units or more will be required to present the big nutritional picture as well as item-by-item details.

It all seems like a can’t-miss proposition to the health and nutrition lobbyists who came up with these requirement and the legislators who made sure all of them got into the healthcare bill.

“The nutrition information is right on the menu or menu board next to the name of the menu item, rather than in a pamphlet or in print on a poster, so that consumers can see it when they are making ordering decisions,” Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who wrote the provision, told the Associated Press.

While the long-term result is expected to be better diet and nutrition and lower health care costs for U.S. consumers, there could initially be short-term chaos for restaurant owners. Consider the QSR segment, where drive-thru times are measured on stopwatches (reigning champ Wendy’s gets customers through in an average of 134 seconds each) and dining rooms rely on rapid-fire service sequences to make the economic model work. Many customers will struggle when figuring out what to order because they now have to perform a sort of nutritional calculus on the fly and process a lot of data to do it. They’ll have to balance their hunger pangs with the nutritional impact fulfilling them will have.

The object of the new law is to get people to think about what they eat, but the impact of the time they spend thinking while staring at a menu board will be born by the restaurant, especially by the people standing in line behind indecisive customers. Initially, pronounced service slowdowns seem almost guaranteed.

There will be an effect in full service, too, although it will likely be less pronounced. But you may have to train your waitstaff to answer a flurry of nutritional questions and otherwise speed up the ordering process early on. On the upside, opportunities for suggestive selling may abound, so be prepared.

But at least there’s certainty about what the industry has to deal with now. “We know the importance of providing consumers with the information they want and need, no matter in which part of the country they are dining,” says National Restaurant Association president/c.e.o. Dawn Sweeney. “This legislation will replace a growing patchwork of varying state and local regulations with one consistent national standard that helps consumers make choices that are best for themselves and their families.”