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Healthy eating takes a targeted track at chains

Photograph courtesy of Protein Bar

The days of putting symbols on the menu to indicate heart-healthy items are over. Even devoting a section to lighter fare is a turnoff these days. While consumers may still be concerned about counting calories and limiting fat—particularly in January when diet resolutions are fresh—healthy eating goes in many more directions today.

Technomic’s Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report reveals that foods that are plant-forward, antioxidant-rich, high in protein, gut-friendly, stress-relieving and immune system-boosting now factor into the definition of healthy eating, especially among younger consumers. At the same time, operators who push too much and try too hard to menu and market healthy options can lose in the long run. Here’s how five chains are finding success.

Playing the protein card

Putting functional foods on the menu is an opportunity—but you can’t get too technical with the messaging, says Jeff Drake, CEO of Chicago-based Protein Bar & Kitchen. “When concepts become too healthy-sounding, they lose the ‘deliciousness’ aspect,” he says. Although this fast casual’s core customers are drawn to protein, menu boards describe the flavor experience, not just the nutrient content. Even Protein Bar’s Bowl30, a colorful toss of seasonal vegetables, turmeric-roasted cauliflower and other ingredients that conforms to the popular Whole30 diet, “is a tongue-in-cheek play on the [diet] name without being preachy,” says Drake.

“Our followers already have buy-in, so we don’t have to hit them over the head with nutrition messages,” says Kate Rettker, Protein Bar’s senior marketing manager. But she uses social media as a platform to dig deeper, getting into amino acids and functional foods. Rettker cites the chain’s Black Widow Shake as an example: “We promoted it as a fun Halloween drink in the stores, but on Twitter and Facebook, we talked about the benefits of activated charcoal, the ingredient that makes the shake black,” she says. “Social media is a good place to tout functional benefits.”

Antioxidants by the spoonful

Customers of Newk’s Eatery are aware of the fast casual’s fresh, from-scratch focus, says CEO and co-founder Chris Newcomb, “and now they are ready to hear the functional message.”

In tandem with Newk’s Cares, the chain’s philanthropic arm for ovarian cancer research, the menu launched an LTO, Thai Chicken Soup, that runs through March 2019. The soup was developed to include ingredients such as mushrooms, carrots, turmeric, garlic and bell peppers—foods with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are believed to help reduce cancer risk. In-store point-of-purchase materials and online information promotes these qualities. “In feedback, customers thanked us for pushing the functional ingredients,” says Newcomb. Going forward, Newk’s intends to launch more soups with health benefits.

The crowdsourcing solution

With Genghis Grill’s build-your-own stir-fry model, guests can customize a meal to fit any eating plan—Paleo, Whole30, gluten-free, vegetarian and more, says Doug Willmarth, CMO of parent company Mongolian Concepts. “But consumers who follow these diets know more about them than we do,” he says. “And communities have formed around their followers.” So to start the new year, the chain is tapping its own fan base to start the conversation and share information through interaction on social media—and extend the conversation to their own online communities.

Sharing works best on Facebook, says Willmarth, where there’s more opportunity to post stories as well as photos. To encourage interaction, Genghis Grill is offering $25 gift cards and in the future plans to partner with top influencers to communicate its message. “Identifying and targeting specific consumers who want health information is the best way to engage them without being preachy,” he says.

All about choice

“Lighten up, feel better” is the health message Pei Wei Asian Diner wants to get across on its menu, but the chain never points out any “diet” items. Instead, the kitchen is promoting its Clean Label Initiative, as well as veg-forward options and steamed preparations, so “consumers can pick around the menu and create a healthier meal,” says CMO Brandon Solano. Last fall, the chain introduced low-carb zucchini noodles and cauliflower rice at some locations, and since January is traditionally diet month, Pei Wei will see if these rice and noodle substitutes can now fly nationally.

“It’s important not to push it on consumers, but promote these items in terms of choice,” says Solano. He leaves the heavier nutrition lifting to Pei Wei Tiger (@PeiWei_Tiger), the chain’s spokesanimal. “He can say whatever he wants on Twitter and other social media platforms,” Solano says, and following his tweets, it’s clear that this cat soft-sells health with an edgy sense of humor.

Mixing up the messengers

The word “grill” in its name signals patrons of Rubio’s Coastal Grill that the fast casual offers seafood prepared in a healthier way. And through its “Made with a Mission” initiative, publicized both in-store and on its website, the chain has established its commitment to sourcing sustainable seafood, all-natural chicken and bacon and GMO-free tortillas. But many of Rubio’s customers are looking for more information, according to Kim Zamir, director of marketing, and Rubio’s delivers with a mix of old and new platforms.

“We use table talkers to promote the health benefits of eating wild, grilled seafood and explain how customers can modify meals by substituting fresh greens for beans or chips,” she says. The website goes into more detail, and the MyMenu section allows guests to filter dishes by health goals, optimizing for weight control, high energy, gluten-free eating, etc. But “we’re bringing back paper menus to tell more of the [clean] ingredient story,” Zamir says. “The menus make a nice handheld for guests to take home and refer to.”

Nevertheless, Rubio’s is not going completely old-school with its health messaging. The chain also is active on social media, creating Instagram stories and a series of YouTube videos. The latter promote Rubio’s fresh, handcrafted approach to food prep. “This interactive way of viewing content makes the message more authentic,” Zamir believes.

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