Quick-service restaurants and retail food-service departments are busy whipping up healthier dishes with real appeal.
In particular, the large chains like McDonald's and Wendy's have been amazingly swift to rustle up wholesome and tasty menu items. At the same time, retailers are rolling out marketing programs that put wholesome foods and health expos in the spotlight. They're also developing signature health-oriented publications, hiring dietitians, and creating eye-catching symbols for store products that meet certain healthy criteria.
As consumers became increasingly concerned about their diets, McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King, among others, took the brunt of criticism because they've been synonymous with double cheeseburgers, fries and other high-calorie fare. Now, the chains are fighting back with fresh fruit, nuts and entree salads.
They're also hiring big-name health gurus. McDonald's has brought in Dr. Dean Ornish, the heart health expert, as a consultant. The restaurant chain this month started touting its newest healthy menu item, apple and walnut salad, with huge, colorful banners spanning the front of its units. Meanwhile, Wendy's rolled out a Mediterranean entree salad. At the same time, Applebee's continues to help Weight Watchers members stay on course by ascribing a Weight Watchers' point count to a number of its mainstream menu items. Consumers are responding positively.
"There's absolutely no doubt they [McDonald's and others] are getting people back in with these menu changes," said Mona Doyle, president, Consumer Network, a Philadelphia-based consumer research firm. "People tell us they're going to McDonald's with the kids now and feeling all right about it. It's definitely bringing them new customers. The fresh salads are working, and now McDonald's is introducing a fruit cup that'll fit into cars' cupholders. That'll have a very big effect. That'll help fresh-cut fruit to explode in supermarkets, too."
The menu changes came about because savvy, educated consumers wanted them. That's the way it's always been -- menu changes coming in response to customer demand, noted a representative of the National Restaurant Association, Washington. Now, the move is taking on a life of its own, according to Doyle.
"They [the quick-service restaurants] may have had a gun to their head in the beginning but this is growing," Doyle said. "Now, there's suddenly a whole lot of fresh foods being sold at the establishments, a lot to choose from. They'll see a lift, I think, that will go beyond the individual items. It's image-changing."
It's difficult to tell whether retailers are reacting to consumers or food-service trends, but it's probably a little of both. At any rate, retailers told SN they applaud food-service operators' decision to offer healthy options.
"Personally, I think it's a good thing that fast-food eating establishments are acting positively [in relation] to the fattening of America," said Eddie Owens, communications director at 47-unit United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas.
"What we've done is re-position our Market Street stores and Whole Health Departments. It's the growth of our Whole Health [all-natural and organic] sales that has spurred a whole new marketing direction for us. We're calling attention to that department. The Living Well Expos are part of that [the new marketing direction]."
Another retailer said he has begun underscoring the healthy products his company carries.
"What we saw first as the reaction from McDonald's has become a thing that's nationwide by now," said Jimmy Higdon, owner of single-unit Higdon's Foodtown, Lebanon, Ky. "McDonald's, schools and the soft-drink companies are getting most of the blame. Those guys have to react, but we in the supermarket business have always offered healthy products."
Higdon said he is pulling healthy items into the customer's line of vision and has begun packaging the items to make them more accessible to customers.
"We're gearing up in produce and our sales show it," he said. "We're doing, for example, some fruit salads in single-serving containers. Actually, we had tried that awhile back, bringing them in from the outside, but the quality just didn't hold up. I think after a couple days on the road, cut fruit really has too short a shelf life. So, we started cutting the fruit in-store. We did some in January and it went so well, we've continued doing it. It's labor-intensive, but worth it. The quality is good, and we're selling a lot. Not only that, but our produce shrink is down. We used to have three or four pineapples we had to throw away. No more. With all the cutting up, we don't have any left."
Higdon said he bought extra shelving for the refrigerated case to present more cut fruit, on $20 and $10 trays and in two smaller-sized, random-weight, individual packages, priced at $2.99 a pound.
Retailers said they doubted the new menus at the quick-service restaurants will make them more formidable competitors. Yet, health-consciousness has inspired them to show off what they have.
"We don't see our sales deteriorating, but people do feel less guilty eating at fast-food places now. I think [the addition of healthy menu items] will help their sales," said Mark Eckhouse, vice president at McCaffrey's, a three-unit independent based in Yardley, Pa. "For that reason, we need to look hard at our marketing in general. We can't just say fast food isn't good for you. We have to keep our [prepared-food] prices moderate, too. We're looking to keep meals in the $5 to $6 range. We're telling people we have healthy things, too. In fact, we're doing quantitative things in prepared foods. Smaller portions, putting maybe a 4-ounce piece of meat in a meal instead of a 6-ounce one for less calories.
"And we're going to designate a 'moderated carb' meal. We want to get away from all the low-carb talk and put the emphasis on balance. There are some new products we're experimenting with, too."
The retailer also will increase the frequency of its "dietitians' store tours."
Tidyman's, Spokane Valley, Wash., hired a dietitian to assess the ingredients of all products, and decide which ones deserve Tidyman's "HealthSmart" seal.
"Basically, we're reading the labels for the customer and then telling them with the HealthSmart seal that a particular product is lower in fat or sodium, and/or higher in fiber," said Patty Kilcup, director of public affairs at the 17-unit Tidyman's. "We started this last spring, and so far we've labeled 1,700 items. Now, we're going into perishables. Bakery is next where we'll look for those things with more fiber. In deli, it will be those low in fat and sodium."
Consumers give high marks to the healthy entree salads offered at many quick-service restaurants.
"We've had a steady stream of positive comments about McDonald's and Wendy's salads," said Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Network, a Philadelphia-based consumer research firm. "People are pleasantly surprised by them, that they're healthy and taste good, too."
Doyle based her comments on feedback from consumers who take part in her company's research projects. Doyle and her associates randomly choose a select number of panelists from a nationwide base panel of 3,500 consumers to survey for qualitative research on food and other consumer topics.
In a spot check in the New York area, SN also gathered positive responses from consumers who've tried the salads at the QSRs.
Karen Hughes, a social studies teacher from Teaneck, N.J., said she now eats at QSRs because of the healthier fare. "They've wooed me back with salads," she said. "On a long trip this spring, I made several stops at McDonald's because I could get a salad. If they hadn't had those, I'd have passed them by. Wendy's are good, too. A small chili and a salad. That's healthy, isn't it? I've been known to go to Wendy's drive-up and buy my week's lunches. Chili and salad."
Anita Schloss, an insurance consultant from New York, agreed.
"These changes have been a long time coming," Schloss said. "As a vegetarian, I appreciate this both for myself and for the American population as a whole. I rarely go to fast-food places, but if I needed to for some reason, I would appreciate having the healthy salads as an option. Hopefully, this will help America eat better. It can't hurt."
Salads have helped rehabilitate the image of QSRs, said Ingrid Lutz, a natural food supplement sales representative from Pearl River, N.Y.
"I think the salads have changed fast-food's image," Lutz said. "I used to think of them as just burgers and fries. Now, I'm more apt to go into a McDonald's or Wendy's. Even with a burger, I'd order a side salad. Just seeing some of those tempting salads on the menu could get people thinking about alternatives that are good for them."