A Big Punch for Menu Labeling

If you believe, as does Thomas Frieden, New York City health commissioner, that customers will flock to restaurants that list the nutritional content of each and every menu item on their menu boards, have we got a recommendation for you. Consider buying a franchise of, or purchasing stock in, UFood Grill, the fast-casual restaurant chain from serial entrepreneur George Naddaff. Its entire operation is structured to tap into the menu labeling trend.

Frieden has made it mandatory that chain restaurants having more than 15 units nationwide offer comprehensive nutritional information on all menus and menu boards in New York City units. Starting March 31, 2008, about 10 percent of the city's restaurants will have to comply.

This will be an expensive and problematic requirement for most chains. But there's one that has a huge head start: UFood Grill, where highly detailed menu labeling has been standard practice from day one. If Frieden and other nutritional activists are right, the world is about to start coming Boston-based UFood's way.

UFood was known as KnowFat Low Fat Lifestyle Grill when Restaurant Hospitality first wrote about it in 2005. The concept offers an extensive lineup of healthy items — there's even a bison burger — and lists the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, total fat and saturated fat for each. Who knows? Eating in an old KnowFat Low Fat unit may be what got Frieden and other food activists thinking that other restaurants should go into this level of nutritional detail, too.

KnowFat Low Fat transformed itself into UFood Grill last summer. Getting the word “fat” out of its name was a key. The chain's Massachusetts stores updated menus and spruced up decors; new units have since opened in Naples, FL and Roseville, CA.

Naddaff has vast experience franchising start-up concepts inside (Boston Market; Ranch One Chicken) and outside (Sylvan Learning Centers) of foodservice. The most recent UFood opening was in Boston's Logan Airport, bringing the number of operating units to nine. The original plans for KnowFat called for 600 units by 2009, so there's plenty of build-out left to complete for UFood.

Naddaff knows that healthful food and high-visibility nutritional information alone will only take this concept so far. That's why he signed a deal with former heavyweight champion George Foreman to be the spokesman for the chain. It can't hurt. Through his line of George Foreman grills, the ex-champ is already associated with healthful eating in the public eye. And he knows how to move the merchandise. More than 80 million George Foreman grills have been sold worldwide.

Naddaff is still selling franchises, but you can also participate by buying shares in the company, now known as UFood Restaurant Group. It's publicly traded on the over-the-counter bulletin board, where its symbol is UFFC.

Originally, UFood stores featured an integrated retail area that sold vitamins and supplements, a much higher-margin business than food. That component is optional now. The vitamin/supplement offerings bring in about 20 percent of a unit's revenue.

We don't know if UFood Grill will take off. But the last time Frieden put his foot down — banning trans fats in New York City restaurants — most restaurants nationally followed suit within a year. The Center for Science in the Public Interest's nutrition policy director Margo Wootan thinks they will again. “We expect that many more cities, counties and states will require menu labeling once they see how easy it is for these chains to list calories on menus,” she says.

Get ready; UFood Grill already is.