Eateries aim for healthy consumers by adding calorie data

Filed under News

By Amy Payne

Medill News Service

Matt Matros, owner of Protein Bar, added nutritional information about his menu items after customers requested it. Photo by Amy Payne.

— With more attention focused on obesity and the role nutrition plays in Americans’ health, Chicago-area restaurants catering to the health-conscious are starting to flaunt ingredient information on their menus.

Matt Matros, owner of Protein Bar at 234 S. Franklin in the Loop, said he added nutritional information to his website menu in January at his customers’ request.

“We used to include less nutritional information, and I would receive e-mails frequently about sodium and sugar counts,” he said. “I was surprised by how many people use it.”

Around the corner from Protein Bar, Hannah’s Bretzel Über Sandwich Makers and Pret A Manger also provide calorie counts for food items on their menu boards.

“These restaurants are taking a proactive approach to get customers used to seeing the facts listed,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc. “They are building the perception that they are healthy.”

New FDA rule will bring menu changes

More restaurants will be required to follow suit, due to a new Food and Drug Administration rule requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to add calorie counts for food items to their menus by mid-2012. The FDA said it hopes to issue final regulations by the end of 2011, allowing restaurants six months to comply with the new rules. The FDA is still determining how nutritional information should be displayed.

Meantime, some restaurants with fewer than 20 locations are taking the lead. Protein Bar includes information on calories, saturated fat, fiber, sugar and protein for its menu items, Matros said.

To calculate nutritional facts about its offerings, Protein Bar uses Living Cookbook software, which provides the nutritional properties of more than 8,000 ingredients, Matros said.

The eatery, which opened in May 2009, initially served blended drinks and breakfast items, but has since added a full menu of lunch options, including healthy wraps, which it calls “bar-ritos.”

Software calculates nutritional information

Other restaurants offer online calculators to provide nutritional information. “I think it is great for restaurants to include nutritional information,” said Rumela Sheikani, a customer at Rōti Mediterranean Grill in Chicago. The restaurant provides a nutrition calculator on its website, which offers data on calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and protein for each menu item.

“We should know what we’re eating and how it affects our bodies,” Sheikani said.

Freshii, a Toronto-based chain of made-to-order salads and wraps with six Chicago locations, provides nutritional information including calorie count on its Freshii 15 menu, which features items with fewer than 500 calories, said Freshii president and first master franchisee David Grossman. The company also offers an online calculator on its main website, www.Freshii.com, providing nutritional information for other food items, and the company plans to add nutritional facts to its in-store menus within the next eight months, Grossman said.

Menu boards updates

Adding nutritional information will require substantial changes to menu boards, but the process is made easier with magnetic menu boards, said Jim Miller, owner of Kiwi Design, a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of menu boards. Bally Total Fitness recently updated the menu boards in its 60 juice bar locations to include calorie information, Miller said.

Listing detailed nutritional information on a small board can be a challenge for restaurants, he said. While the cost for adding a new magnetic strip generally is $10 to $15, Miller said, “Sometimes the layouts have to be radically changed.”

Tristano of Technomic estimated the cost of updating menu boards to comply with the new FDA regulations could be $1,000 or more.

Many consumers have no idea how many calories they are consuming when they eat out. The variation among smoothie beverage recipes can be dramatic, Miller said. “Most are in the 300 range, but I’ve seen them all the way up to 900 calories,” he said.

Informed consumers make healthier choices

Studies show that when consumers are aware of what they are eating, they are apt to make healthier choices, said dietitian and nutritionist Mary Ann Hodorowicz.

“I’m totally in favor of restaurants including nutritional facts,” Hodorowicz said. “It will help America combat the obesity epidemic. It comes down to making a decision versus an informed decision about what you are going to eat.”

At Freshii, more than half of customers are women like Katrina Hochstetler, who seeks out healthy fare for lunch. Hochstetler said she checks nutritional facts at her desk before she heads for lunch.

“I’m always trying to find healthy solutions for lunch,” Hochstetler said. “Having the nutritional facts posted at the restaurant would make those decisions even easier.”

Expansion plans for healthy eateries

Despite the tough economy, many restaurants with a healthy bent report strong sales and expansion plans.

Grossman said his first Freshii location, which opened in Chicago in March 2009, broke even within the first three months. He plans to open four Chicago restaurants before the end of the year and 40 within the next 10 years.

Protein Bar, which had 2010 sales of more than $1 million, plans to open three new downtown locations this summer and expand its workforce to 50 employees from 14 currently, Matros said. Seventeen customers have invested about $2 million to fund the expansion, including $400,000 from one investor, he said.

Rōti currently has seven locations and intends to open five more in 2011, said Peter Nolan, director of marketing. Its newest opened May 2 at the intersection of Randolph and Wells streets.

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