Capturing the Health-Conscious Consumer

Four tips to get your message across to foodservice customers

Published in CSP Daily News

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill. -- In the not-so-distant past, eating out and eating healthy were two very separate events, vegetarian restaurants and those boring “diet” plates—hamburger patty, sliced tomatoes and scoop of cottage cheese, anyone?—aside. These days, consumers are not only eating away from home more often, but they’re paying more attention to what they’re eating, a realization that hasn’t gone unnoticed by savvy retailers.

“There has clearly been across the board—and not just in restaurants, but in all segments—a broad cultural push around eating healthier over the last few years,” said Justin Massa, founder and CEO of Chicago-based research firm Food Genius. “There has been a lot of work to publicize that there are healthier alternatives when eating out.”

Part of that awareness comes in the use of the word “healthy” itself on menus and signage, making it easier for customers to understand what is a healthy option, said Massa. “One of the things I’m continually amazed at is how bad we [as consumers] are at understanding what is healthy when it’s not called out.”

So what can retailers do to help enlighten their foodservice customers? Plenty. Here are a few tips to help your customers eat healthier:

Never too young. One area that is ripe for retailers to get creative with healthy items is on kids’ menus. “Despite the fact that there’s been this push toward healthier eating, chicken fingers, burgers and hot dogs are still ubiquitous on kids’ menus,” said Massa.

Devil is in the details. While the jury is still out on whether listing calories has an effect on what consumers order, recent research in the International Journal of Hospitality Management by Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor of food marketing, offers some insight on what will. Positioning those healthier items prominently on the menu--at the four corners and at the beginning of sections, suggests Wansink—will draw the eye toward them. In addition, don’t hold back when describing the dish, making sure to include enticing ingredients. “The word ‘healthy’ will only appeal to some people,” said Massa. “But a well-described healthy item will appeal to someone for whom taste also matters.”

… But don’t overdo it. Be cautious with the labels you add to your menu and signage.

“You can’t take a burger and describe it as healthy,” said Massa. “There’s a little bit of health halo you can get from reducing carbohydrates or having something be gluten-free. But operators shouldn’t confuse a dietary-friendly item with something that is genuinely healthy.”

Eating healthy doesn’t mean you can’t indulge. When it comes to adult menus, especially for quick-serve restaurants, one way retailers could encourage healthy eating is to offer smaller portions of their higher-calorie items. “Decadent snacks have continued to do well despite this push for health because they’re just a snack,” said Massa. “If restaurants offer the same options—a tiny dessert or a smaller shake, for example—they might be able to catch some of those consumers.”