Healthy Customers, Healthy Profits

HEALTHY & TASTY: Chef Cliff Pleau of Seasons 52 (top) and chef Sandy Kapoor both stressed to seminar attendees (below) that healthy food can taste great.

TAKE 5: Desiree Backman of the California 5 a Day Campaign said restaurants can greatly help to improve the heath of this country's residents.

BETTER FOOD: Restaurant operators (from l. to r.) Sid Fanarof, Ken Rausch, Reinhard Dorfhuber and Jason Brown speak out.

HEALTHY KIDS: Shawn LaPean, Berkeley foodsevice director, gets behind organics.


If you think you can't create a menu full of tasty, healthful menu items, then you may be in the wrong business, proclaimed Sandy Kapoor, a registered dietitian and trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America. She was addressing the crowd at RH's most recent Healthy Customers, Healthy Profits seminar, and for more than a half hour she pounded home her point.

Go easy on the fat and infuse your dishes with flavor, said the professor of The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University. Flavor is the key, and it doesn't always have to come from fat. Offer an avocado and orange salad with honey and ginger dressing and no one will feel like they're being deprived. Even with dessert, offer a light ice cream, but infuse it with hints of rosemary, she said.

No matter what cuisine you offer, it can be improved upon, said Kapoor. Use lighter, but zestier, flavors. For example, give pork tenderloin an ethnic flavor with pickled plums, or serve a pineapple carpaccio drizzled with star-anise honey. Think about contrasting sweet and spicy flavors, such as pomegranate and red chili braised seafood.

Kapoor, director of a Kapoor & Kapoor Hospitality, said there are so many ways to get around the fat in recipes. Think about pairing sophisticated, complex flavors with familiar flavors. For example, coffee-roasted beef filets, or seared salmon with ponzu and baby bok choy.

Demonstrate to your customers that they can eat healthfully at your place, and make it fun, she said. Offer cooking classes and food samplings. Consider recipe contests and cook-offs, unique presentations, theme meals and food and beverage pairings.

Don't think you can't offer healthful desserts that customers and your accountant will eat up, said Kapoor. Offer mini versions of your desserts; encourage customers to share more indulgent desserts; use more fruits and flavors; and improve indulgent desserts with better, more healthful ingredients.

Healthy is no longer a hard sell, said Kapoor. Many of your customers are seeking out local and organic ingredients. They're asking if menu items are trans fat free. They want to know the name of the chef, the farmer and the rancher. Now, more than ever, you, the foodservice operator, will profit from a menu that is healthful. But—and this is a big point—menu items have to taste great, too.

Kapoor's point was more than supported by Cliff Pleau, corporate chef and director of culinary development for Seasons 52. The Orlando-based, Darden concept notes at the top of its menu that no item has more than 475 calories, but beyond that customers would never guess that the restaurant has a healthful focus.

"Everything we serve is fresh and seasonal," said Pleau, "and our primary focus is on taste. You don't need a load of calories to make food taste good; you just need some basic cooking skills and common sense."

To prove his point, the chef distributed to seminar attendees plastic spray bottles that are often used to mist house plants. At Seasons 52, the bottles contain olive oil, which the culinary team uses to lightly coat saute pans or finish salads. "The amount of calories in a tablespoon add up quickly," he said, "and it's very easy to overpour olive oil on everything. The spray bottles prevent that from happening."

Pleau was quick to point out that the calorie content of some menu items—desserts for example—should not be messed with. At Seasons 52, the solution is to offer small versions of desserts. All the desserts are served in shot glasses, which amount to no more than a bite or two, but it satisfies the desire for something sweet at the end of the meal, he said. And, for those who aren't interested in watching calories, they can (and often do) order several desserts that are presented on a cart. Everyone wins, he says.

It is all about the win, and in the battle against dietary related diseases, the country is not doing so well. More than a few speakers at the Healthy Customers seminar pointed out that the industry has a responsibility to deal with these issues, if not for moral reasons, at least for financial ones. With obesity and other health issues on the rise, there's a movement in this country to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

One aspect of that movement comes in the form of a website, where diners interested in finding a restaurant that offers healthful menu choices can search by city. The site—www.healthydiningfinder.com—identifies these restaurants and menu choices, so consumers can make informed dining-out choices. For more details about how your restaurant can participate, contact Anita Jones-Mueller at 805-693-1100.

As is often the case with health, the movement is strong in California. The healthydiningfinder.com website has its roots in California, as does the California 5 a Day Campaign. Desiree Backman, manager of the campaign, said the plan is to empower low-income residents to eat more fruits and vegetables, while also stepping up the level of physical activity. The cost to California related to obesity in 2005 was in the vicinity of $28 billion.

On the legislative level, a number of new bills are in the works, including one that would prohibit snack and entree food items containing partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils from being sold in schools. Another bill would prohibit the use of foods containing artificial trans fats. Another would require restaurant chains with more than 10 units to post nutrition information.

What can you do to help fight obesity and still make a profit? Backman suggests that if you offer snacks, beverages or meals intended for one person, then makesure that the portion size is appropriate for one person. Also, put calorie informationper serving on menus and offer healthy food options. Increase the number of fruit and vegetable menu items, as well. She also suggests that you attractively merchandise and market seasonal fresh produce.

Other Blackman suggestions: involve chefs in helping identify menu strategies to put healthy foods in front of customers; train chefs to create exciting menu items that are lower in fat, calories, cholesterol and sodium; and encourage trial of "better for you" offerings through taste tests and discount coupons.

If you think the healthy trend is being fueled solely by aging boomers, think again. Shawn LaPean, the director of foodservice at the University of California, Berkeley, serves over 22,000 customers per day and improved his bottom line by 33 percent, all while eliminating nearly all artificial trans fats from meals and being the first school foodservice operation in the country to be certified organic.

"Our youngest customers are thinking more than any generation before them about what they eat," said LaPean. "They want to eat better, more healthy food and if you don't give it to them, they'll find it elsewhere."

That was the sentiment iterated by a panel of California-based foodservice operators including Jason Brown, C.E.O. of Organic to Go; Ken Rausch, president of Edward's Steak House; Reinhard Dorfhuber, chef/ partner of Elephant Bar; and Sid Fanarof, chairman and founder of Zpizza. All four operators said they have seen an increase in the demand for healthful food options in recent years, including Rausch at his steakhouse. "Customers are asking for smaller cuts of meat and we've made an effort to offer sides that are more healthy than traditional offerings."

Fanarof pointed out that items traditionally not thought to be healthful, like pizza, can be made in better-for-you versions that also taste great. It's up to you, the operator, to think about how to do that.

The success of Organic To Go dramatically suggests that consumers are looking for healthful choices, explained Brown. The company, which sells sandwiches, salads and other food items made with organic or natural ingredients, has grown so quickly that Brown has plans to take the company public this year. In the case of Elephant Bar, Dorfhuber has been a chef for more than 30 years and most menu items are made from scratch. "We're all about giving customers full-flavored, big tastes, but if someone wants low carb, low fat or vegetarian options, that's not a problem," he said. "It's all about your customers and what they want, not what you want as an operator. Give 'em what they want."

More than ever before, your customers are asking for and demanding, healthful, greattasting menu options. Are you prepared to give them what they want?