Zach Bredemann, corporate chef at Kona Grill, recently went through the process of updating the 23-location chain's menu. During the revamp, he took down the old nutritional information sheet from Kona Grill's website. "We were inundated with emails saying, 'Hey, what happened to this? I need to know the calorie count.' There were a lot of people out there who wanted it," says Bredemann.
None of Kona Grill's restaurants are located in a state that requires menu labeling, but that hasn't stopped the company from getting ready to comply with upcoming federal regulations. Those regulations haven't been finalized yet, but it could happen before the end of the year. What we know so far is that it is likely to impact restaurants with 20 or more locations operating under the same brand name. It will require displaying calorie counts on menu boards and offering more detailed nutritional information on request.
To get an idea of where this is headed, pick up a box of cereal and read the nutrition panel on the side. "This is setting a uniform federal standard that preempts the patchwork of state and local laws that was developing," says Dan Roehl, senior director of government relations at the National Restaurant Association. Enforcement could start as soon as within 6 months of the law's finalization. That means restaurants need to be thinking ahead about calculating the nutritional information of menu items.
Traditionally, restaurants sent menu items to laboratories for analysis, but the process can be time-consuming and expensive. In more recent years, software options have reached the market. These use databases full of nutritional information for ingredients. You input the quantities of each ingredient that goes into a menu item and let the software handle the calculations.
Kona Grill has been using MenuCalc, a Web-based nutritional analysis software service, for 3 years. "We wanted to be sure we were ahead of the curve," says Bredemann. "It's a big decision between going with a system like MenuCalc versus having people breaking down your recipes for you. If you're constantly changing your menu, it gets pretty expensive."
Kona Grill also uses MenuCalc to prepare menu items for special low-calorie promotions. "We make items to fit into the calorie count for people who are health conscious," says Bredemann. Nutritional analysis data has helped the chain tweak recipes to meet its needs. All that data is available for customers on Kona Grill's website, including details on calories, fat content, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars and protein.
Getting ready for menu labeling requirements means taking a close look at the items your restaurant serves. "The biggest thing I would say is that you're got to get your recipes in order. No system knows what a handful of nuts is. You have to put your ingredients into quantity and units of measure," says Lucy Logan, president and founder of MenuCalc. She notes that 62 percent of MenuCalc's customers are independents and chains with fewer than 5 locations. They won't fall under the federal menu labeling requirements, but many of them want to offer their customers the same information the big chains do. It's a customer service issue as well as a way to stay competitive.
Should Kona Grill fall under the new federal regulations, adding calories counts to the restaurant's menu will be a simple process. As Bredemann's experience with customers seeking nutritional information shows, restaurant patrons are already looking for the information. "People are very health conscious and giving them more options will bring people in the door," says Bredemann. He feels confident that Kona Grill can quickly adapt to new requirements. "We wanted to be sure we were ready for it," he says.
Once you've made the decision to use nutrition analysis software, it's time to choose a provider. There are traditional software options as well as Web-based services. They all use an ingredient database to render nutritional information based on the recipe measures you input. Some options are below:
Maker: Axxya Systems
Software: Nutritionist Pro Food Labeling (http://www.nutritionistpro.com/foodlabeling.php)
Price: $595 (license for one computer)
Nutritionist Pro Food Labeling software is compatible with Windows computers and includes a database full of 51,000 foods and ingredients. Label formats meet FDA requirements and include options for bilingual Spanish and French labels.
Price: Monthly plans start at $49
MenuCalc is a Web-based system requiring no software installation, just an Internet connection and browser are needed. It is endorsed by the National Restaurant Association and includes the ability to customize ingredients, create prep recipes and export data in a variety of formats.
Maker: The Nutrition Company
Software: FoodWorks 14
Price: $199.95 (license for one computer)
Windows-compatible FoodWorks includes 39,000 database items culled from the USDA, Canadian Nutrient File and other sources. The software package includes a nutrition facts label maker. Licenses for additional computers at the same location are $50 each.
Price: Monthly plans starts at $49.95
MenuMax's nutrition analysis capability is part of a larger suite of online restaurant services. It incorporates a database of 27,000 ingredients from the ESHA Nutrient Database. Labels can be generated in print or Web-sharing formats.