Wendy’s, Panera Bread and Applebee’s are among the chains that either have added or are promoting new lower-calorie or fitness-focused menu items.
It’s a good time to do so, “because the public is already thinking about it. The mindset is already there, so people are likely to respond to it,” Columbus restaurant consultant Bob Welcher said. “If a restaurant is already planning to offer this, there isn’t a better time to roll it out.”
Wendy’s “New Year, New You” campaign is promoting menu items and combo meals with 300 to 600 calories on menu boards inside and in the drive-through lane. Featured items include the Ultimate Chicken Grill sandwich without sauce, served with a salad or chili and a diet soda. On Twitter, the company rang in the new year by touting its Wendy Wise smartphone app, which helps customers create their own meals within certain calorie counts, and contains nutritional information on Wendy’s menu items.
On Jan. 1, Applebee’s added new items to its “Unbelievably Great Tasting Under 550 Calories” menu, including several steak entrees, a Roma chicken and shrimp dish, and a Weight Watchers-endorsed lemon parmesan shrimp meal. Applebee’s also has physically changed the menu, merging its previously separate low-calorie options and its Weight Watchers-endorsed meals onto a single new page.
Although it’s too soon to tell how well the new entrees will sell — and whether their appeal will last longer than a newly minted January gym membership — “They all tested extremely well, and every indication is they will do well,” company spokesman Dan Smith said. “The low-calorie and Weight Watchers menus already have proven, dedicated followers.”
Panera Bread has introduced a new spinach “power” salad, a breakfast “power” sandwich, and a fat-free SuperFruit Power smoothie with ginseng and organic Greek yogurt, with a focus on fitness rather than calorie counts alone.
“The power menu focuses on the benefits of the whole picture — not just calorie content, but protein” and other nutrients, said Laurie Berg, marketing director for Covelli Enterprises, a Columbus-area Panera Bread franchisee. “People are looking to eat more healthfully and incorporate (restaurant meals) into their fitness routine, and they’re looking for more well-rounded food, rather than just items low in calories that could be high in something else, such as carbs.”
Restaurants may be promoting the low-calorie options on the tail of the new year, but there’s evidence that the appearance of more-healthful menu items is a trend that will stick.
The restaurant-industry research firm Technomic found 90 percent of women and 75 percent of men say they appreciate when restaurants have lower-calorie meal options, even if they don’t personally order them. Half of consumers also say they would like restaurants to offer more healthful foods, and 38 percent said they’re more likely to visit restaurants that have healthful menu options, even if they don’t order one themselves. That’s up from 33 percent in 2010.
“More consumers than ever before tell us that eating healthy and paying attention to nutrition is important,” said Darren Tristano, Technomic’s vice president.
Restaurants have responded. In the past few years, they have added more diet-conscious menu items. IHOP added a Simple & Fit menu of items under 600 calories in 2010; Cheesecake Factory added its Small Plates & Snacks menu in 2009; and T.G.I. Friday’s rolled out its Right Portion, Right Price menu in 2007.
A Center for Science in the Public Interest study found restaurants also are working behind the scenes to lower the calorie counts and improve the nutritional content of some menu items ahead of requirements in the Affordable Health Care Act that restaurants with more than 20 locations provide calorie information on menus.
“It’s a good strategy for restaurants to develop year-round low-calorie menu items, because it’s a trend that has been growing over a long period of time, and demand is only going to get stronger,” Welcher said.
“It needs to be integrated into the menu at all times, not just for a New Year’s promotion.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service says that restaurants account for 41 percent of food expenditures and 32 percent of the typical American’s caloric intake.