What drives consumers to choose healthful items over more enticing yet unhealthy options?
Research from Mintel—a supplier of consumer, product and media intelligence—shows 27% of consumers say they like to order healthful meals with ingredients they are familiar with. According to Katrina Fajardo, foodservice analyst at Mintel, familiarity can help ease consumers who are often on the fence about healthy or indulgent eating into healthier choices. Fajardo suggests chefs use recognizable ingredients “rather than alienating them with superfoods they have not heard of or have a reputation for lackluster taste."
The kitchen staff at BONAPITA, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant that recently opened in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, agrees that health is often synonymous with simplicity. BONAPITA’s pitas are made using only water, flour, yeast and salt. The restaurant never uses dairy product and there’s no fryer on site.
Are there staple items so popular that you must have on the menu?"I think it behooves each restaurant and bar to have a phenomenal cheese selection. It's something most guests always go to no matter what experience they are looking for. Having new creameries and selections on a monthly basis makes it exciting for both staff and our guests.”
— Zach Tirone, g.m. The LCL: Bar & Kitchen, New York City
Instead of the traditional falafel, BONAPITA serves black bean and beet patties—what the kitchen considers a healthier, baked option. The pitas are baked daily on premises and guests can add a protein and choose to have it served one of three ways: filled with chopped salad, spicy tomato sauce and tahini ($6.99); plated with rice and roasted vegetables ($8.49); or tossed as a salad with romaine and tahini dressing ($7.99).
The protein options include: chicken a la plancha; meatballs; black bean and beet patties; or mushrooms, lentils and thyme.
Here’s the trick: Mintel research shows that nearly one out of every four U.S. consumers (24%) is not interested in eating healthfully when they go out to eat because they view away-from-home visits as a treat. Similarly, about a quarter of consumers (24%) mentioned that they look at the more healthful options, but opt for the unhealthy meals instead. So you have to find a balance between catering to both demographics.
"While this may sound like operators don't necessarily need to pander toward the health-minded visitors, there is still a sizeable number of consumers who are willing to purchase healthy foods," Fajardo says. "Operators who do not have a foundation in healthy offerings should continue to offer their traditional fare, but create menu items that are either lower-calorie items, customized versions of main meals or add locally-sourced or organic ingredients to items in order to boost consumer's perceptions of health on the menu without needing a full menu overhaul."
At The LCL: Bar & Kitchen in New York City, g.m. Zach Tirone says the kitchen must balance between diners willing to experiment with ingredients, flavors or foods and diners who want more traditional ingredients and dishes.
“You get the people that are super adventurous and put themselves in your hands so to speak, but that isn't every day,” Tirone says. “Ideally, whether you're talking about a beverage or a certain dish, we do our best to give as many details and information so that the guest has a pretty good idea of what to expect. We find that if you do that, more people are open to new things that they maybe haven't tried yet.”
What is healthy dining?
So how do Americans define healthy dining? According to Mintel, 9 percent agree a menu item that includes a "gluten-free" mention denotes a healthy choice, down from 10% last year. Thirty-nine percent think entrees with more fruits and vegetables come across as healthy. Meanwhile, 37% believe an item with a low calorie count is a healthy option and 34% think a dish with less sodium is considered healthy.
“One of the possible reasons for consumers' indecisiveness on healthy foods in foodservice is the fact that foodservice still has the stigma of being unhealthy, regardless of what is ordered,” Mintel’s Fajardo says. “As a result of the numerous exposes showing the real caloric counts in salads, sandwiches and other menu items deemed as healthy, consumers are conflicted with the idea that a restaurant could offer real, healthy items.
“For operators, this is a difficult position to be in,” she continues. “However, if the menu items are described well, and are made with familiar items, it could help entice customers who are seeking a healthy meal."
Tirone agrees there are ways to present dishes, including the description, to encourage experimentation.
“If a dish has a couple items guests are rather familiar with, but added is that third or fourth ingredient that is unfamiliar, that is a great way to encourage stepping outside of the box,” he says.