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Analyze this: The cost of counting calories

It’s been four years since President Obama decreed, through the Affordable Care Act, that restaurants with 20 or more units list caloric information for standard menu items. The Food and Drug Administration still is finalizing the rules, but restaurants will have to contend with them any day now. How do you fit hefty menu analyses that can stretch over hundreds of SKUs into the budget. We asked several operators, who already have gone through the process to share what worked—and didn’t work—for them.

Full-time nutritionist

“We knew it would be required sooner or later and, increasingly, guests were asking for information,” says Bob McDevitt, senior vice president of franchising of Raleigh, N.C.-based buffet concept Golden Corral. So the chain hired a full-time nutrition specialist who did nothing but analyze the menu’s 600 SKUs for two years. Her salary was the main cost, he says. “But we also paid for software and upgrades, for an outside lab to analyze the [products], for new signage and labels, and our suppliers paid to have their products analyzed.” The corporate office covers all costs, McDevitt says, though franchisees pay for any analysis of regional dishes. 

Counting costs

Corporate has paid about $200,000 to date, most of which was the cost of the analyst. We have not yet found a way to make this cost effective,” says McDevitt. “We have simply borne the expense.”


Not long after some cities and states around the country started demanding that restaurants post nutritional information several years ago, The Melting Pot obliged, moving towards having nutritional info available by 2008. “To meet all [the different requirements] was difficult,” says president Mike Lester. “We were excited about the national standards when the Affordable Care Act was passed.” Those standards won’t take effect until the laws are hashed out, but The Melting Pot worked with an external R&D nutritional-information company for its analysis and has continued to use the firm for a yearly update, as menu items change. The Melting Pot analyzes smaller changes in house to make ongoing maintenance cost effective.
Counting costs: The initial analysis cost was $10,000; the yearly update runs $5,000 to $6,000.

Culinary checkpoints

LYFE Kitchen, based in Irvine, Calif., relies on several sources to analyze and verify the nutritional analysis of its local, sustainable menu. It works with a contracted nutritionist who analyzes all foods; this person then visits the concept’s 10 stores at least twice a year to ensure everything’s being made to spec, says COO Larry Taylor. The culinary team also visits each unit biannually to verify that dishes are prepared correctly to make sure the nutritionals come out right. Externally, a lab periodically checks the nutrition profile of random dishes to ensure accuracy, and charges LYFE Kitchen per item.

Counting costs

It pays $3,000 to $5,000 per year for the outsourced nutritionist and around $5,000 for the lab service. 

LYFE Kitchen Pizzadillawich

LYFE Kitchen's Pizzadillawich contains 588 calories. Here's the breakdown:

  • 1 cup marinated kale (side): 46 calories
  • garlic spread: 46 calories
  • 1/4 cup marinated grilled eggplant: 53 calories
  • 1/8 cup roasted onions: 36 calories
  • gluten-free crust: 233 calories
  • 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella: 88 calories
  • 1 tbsp basil: 1 calories
  • 1 tbsp goat cheese: 35 calories
  • 1/4 cup grilled peppers: 18 calories
  • 2 fluid ounces pomodoro sauce: 31 calories

The NRA’s Healthy Dining Finder service

Pita Pit, with U.S. headquarters in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, pays an annual fee to Healthy Dining Finder, a website that helps consumers find restaurants serving dietitian-approved meals by only featuring healthy choices. In return, Pita Pit gets a full analysis of its entire menu, including identification of allergens, promotion on the Healthy Dining’s website and ongoing analysis of new or changed products. Pita Pita has always provided this information, “but we thought it important to have a third party verify all the nutritional and allergen information,” says Benjamin Drake, vice president of research and development.

The company opted for Healthy Dining Finder four years ago, but keeps costs in check by not analyzing every single thing. “We select what analysis we want on each item to ensure we aren’t paying for information that is a given [such as an item being vegetarian],” Drake says.

Counting costs: The annual fee (which includes the initial menu analysis) is $10,000, and each new or changed item that’s analyzed costs $70-$150. The corporate office of this franchised chain takes care of the costs.

Contractual Analysis

Vancouver, Wash.-based Burgerville recently made the switch to external nutritional analysis. Doing it in-house was just not sophisticated enough, says director of supply chain Cathy Insler, and it was expensive. “The ever-changing nutritional rules were beyond what any one person could reasonably handle. We would have had to make major investments in enhancing and adding programs, people and processes to support in-house nutrition,” she explains. And with more consumers wanting to know more about their food, down to the ingredient level, says Insler, Burgerville made the move to provide more accurate information before the inevitable menu-labeling mandates. Now, the quick serve pays an external nutritionist who charges by the hour; the last monthly billing was for 48 hours worth of work. This was a cost-effective move, says Insler, because the nutritionist works on an as-needed basis and provides quick turnaround. “We do a lot of seasonal work and LTOs, so we have a lot of movement in nutrition,” she says.

Counting costs: Previously, it was $100,000 per year, but analysis now costs around $86,000.

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