From heart-healthy to high-protein, the drive to meet consumer demand for better-for-you options has been going strong for decades. But when customers step up to the counter, are they really ordering healthy options, or are they sticking to the comfort foods that the limited-service segment is best known for? The answer depends on who you ask.
“What is the word ‘healthy’?” asks Nick Reader, CEO and co-founder of PDQ, a fried chicken-centric restaurant with locations in nine states. “Think back to when low-fat was healthy. People are more educated now, and you can control your fat and calorie intake based on whether you want to lose weight or maintain weight.”
For a restaurant like PDQ, less-caloric options are offered, but aren’t expected to outpace the signature fried chicken nuggets, tenders and sandwiches. “People say they want healthy, but you don’t necessarily see it [in sales],” Reader says. “Our tenders are still a big seller for us. We’re OK serving you fried food that’s hand-battered. We’re doing it in front of you in an open kitchen so you can see what’s going on. If you want to go with grilled tenders or a low-carb sandwich with a lettuce wrap and an avocado, you can do that.”
Noodles & Company’s top seller is Wisconsin Mac & Cheese. Two out of every 10 customers order it, says Jonathan Tress, vice president of marketing. “It’s not one of our lower-calorie items, but our next two [most popular] items are Penne Rosa and Japanese Pan Noodles, which, if you get a small version, you’re at 340, 350 calories.”
Tress points out that most diners are not exclusively “healthy” or “unhealthy” in their daily choices. “I think our menu helps you at different times during the week,” he says. “Monday at lunch when you’re trying to be good, I’ll order a salad, but by Thursday night, I’m ready for mac and cheese.”
Geography also comes into play. “I genuinely believe that healthy eating is something more and more consumers are striving toward, and I think healthy does mean something different to everyone,” says Jennifer Peters, owner and founder of Just Be Kitchen, a paleo fast-casual restaurant in Denver, a metro that is known for its active, health-conscious demographic.
“If you’re like my family in Ohio who have to travel 45 minutes to the nearest farmers market and have more of the traditional QSR brands in their vicinity, healthy to them would be just say, cutting out pasta, or maybe it would be having chicken and vegetables, but the chicken might have Alfredo sauce on it. It’s not going to be the same for everyone.”
More fruits and veggies
Differing opinions aside, most consumers and operators alike agree that incorporating more fruits and vegetables is a healthy choice.
At Oceana Poke in New York City, diners can build their own seafood-topped poke bowl with a base of white rice, brown rice, quinoa, mixed greens or zucchini noodles. “Believe it or not, we do sell more zucchini noodles than the rice,” says General Manager Zeki Yesilyurt. Traditional soda options were forgone for housemade teas flavored with fruit-based combinations such as mango-pineapple-yuzu or spiced peach. For a summer special, Ocean Poke offered freshly squeezed watermelon juice. “Watermelon has a lot of natural sugar, so you don’t need to add anything,” Yesilyurt says.
PDQ has also beefed up its vegetable side dishes. “We have fries, but we also have baked sweet potatoes and zucchini fries. We have roasted broccoli that we do in our oven,” Reader says. “But it has to start with tasting great.”
Noodles & Company is looking to incorporate seasonal produce into its menu. “[We’re asking ourselves,] how do we work in some different varied seasonal vegetables, like an asparagus dish in the summer, that allows people some more healthful options at different times of year?” Tress says.
Clean is the new healthy
If “healthy” has become subjective and “fresh” is now expected, what’s the next descriptor that will appeal to diners? Many operators are pointing to one word: clean.
“I think ‘healthy’ is out, because people have overused the word so much that it’s never going to be defined in a way that people would fully understand,” says Karen Firsel, founder and owner of Northbrook, Ill.-based Jar Bar, which sells breakfast and lunch in travel-friendly jar-style containers. “I think ‘clean’ is a word that people understand and that they’re striving for.”
To operators, clean means avoiding processed items and artificial flavorings and preservatives in favor of items made from scratch in-house. “The perception is that to get [a fast breakfast], you have to go through a drive-thru and have the microwaved egg whatever-that-is,” Firsel says. “At Jar Bar, you can get poached eggs over mashed potatoes and roasted veggies in literally three minutes.”
When Reader founded PDQ with business partner and Outback Steakhouse co-creator Bob Basham, they were inspired by their desire for a cleaner option for families with small children. “We started eating drive-thru food more … There was a sense of shame; you’d hide the bag,” Reader says. “We tried to feed our kids fairly clean at home. We thought, could we make food from scratch, not have microwaves or frozen products, and could you do that using natural preservatives or no preservatives? We’re probably 98% clean, with some exceptions such as Oreos for milkshakes. Every sauce is made by us and we control the ingredients. That’s now what people want.”
Whether you opt for the fries or the salad, the pasta bowl or the poke bowl, clean can apply to all. “When you want to have an indulgent meal, you don’t feel bad about it because it’s not loaded with preservatives and chemicals,” Reader says.
The theory checks out, Technomic finds. Some 57% of consumers agree that if an indulgent food is “natural,” they feel better about eating it, according to Technomic’s Natural & Organic: The Impact on Foodservice study.
What about organic?
The demand for organic products has been rising in grocery stores, but it’s not translating to restaurants. The Technomic study reports that 30% of consumers usually seek organic food for at-home occasions, and only 18% do so when dining away from home.
“Here’s my take on organic: It’s not that important,” Firsel says. “Through my research, I have realized that whenever you see the words ‘all organic’ on a menu, either it’s not true or it may have been true at one point or another, but it’s often unavailable for every ingredient, and it’s often very expensive. Based on the type of ordering that you need to do for a restaurant and working on your food cost, it’s virtually impossible to do.”
At Just Be Kitchen, Peters chose to go organic with just a few items. “Buying only organic is just extremely expensive,” she says. She sources organic kale and fresh berries, both of which are used in small quantities on the menu. “I think the consumer cares less about a dish in totality being organic, but I see consumers caring a lot about where the protein comes from,” Peters says. That preference led her to choose organic grass-fed beef for the restaurant’s $13 burger.
PDQ sources chicken that’s hormone- and antibiotic-free, but Reader says going entirely organic is cost-prohibitive.
“We’re trying to stay at a price point that’s accessible to the masses. Sometimes people want a certain quality of meat, but it may mean that the protein is 4, 5 or 6 bucks,” Reader says. “That’s fine when you eat at home, but there’s a lot of people that can’t afford to eat that way.”
There is some interest specifically in organic beverages at Uberrito Fresh Mex, says Greg Snodgrass, president of the build-your-own burrito chain with locations in Texas and Arizona. Uberrito has had favorable sales for an organic bottled tea. “People do comment on the organic tea,” he says. “Mothers want to know for kids drinks, ‘Is the apple juice organic?’ Those would be the things we do get.”
Custom continues to be key
As for how to cater to the broad definitions of “healthy,” the answer can be found in an already mainstream trend: customization.
That’s a key strategy for Uberrito. “It’s really up to the guest what they want out of the experience that day,” Snodgrass says. “We can make it as healthy as they want to and they can customize it all the way down the line with up to 40 different toppings.”
Uberrito also sells smaller versions of its burritos, bowls, tacos and salads for those looking for a snack-sized portion instead of a full meal. “Or if you want a half a scoop of dressing instead of a full scoop, we can do that,” Snodgrass adds.
Noodles & Company also relies on customization. “If you’re looking at calories, you can look to substitute proteins out for extra veggies or change the type of noodle you want,” Tress says. “It’s pretty easy for us to adapt for what healthy means to you.”