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Restaurants find that protein packs a healthy punch

State of the Plate: Restaurant menu trends expert Nancy Kruse dishes on "dude food," as consumers' view of healthy shifts toward the meatier side of things.
restaurant menu trends protein
Zaxby's used this ad to highlight its new Buffalo Garlic Blaze sauce for its wings./Image courtesy of Zaxby's.

State of the Plate

About a decade ago, chain menu R&D took an unexpected turn toward the healthful. Overtly better-for-you dishes historically had been nonstarters in foodservice. One brand that learned this the hard way was Georgia-based D’Lites of America, which built a 100-unit chain in the late 1980s based on lean burgers, high-fiber buns and low-cal cheese. In other words, it was exactly the kind of food consumers professed to desire; but in practice, they stayed away in droves, and the operation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1987.

The more recent catalyst for change in patron behavior was the emergence of protein as a dietary super star. In many respects, its burgeoning popularity as the “good” macronutrient came at the expense of fats, still suffering from decades of dietary demonization, and carbohydrates. Whether simple or complex, good or bad, carbs were just too complicated for many consumers, and the rise of protein-forward lifestyle diets effectively kicked carbs to the curb.

In addition to its new-found position at the top of the ingredient chain, protein promotion came with an added bonus: It had distinct appeal to male diners. Operations that had depended largely on female patrons, notably bakery-cafes, had a hook to lure males, and brands that traditionally had a strong male franchise, like some quick-service chains, had an additional draw.

Dude Food. In 2013, Panera Bread launched new items specifically aimed at attracting male diners. It was a “secret” menu, a popular promotion tactic at the time, that consisted of a line of Power Bowls such as the Power Breakfast Egg White Bowl with Steak. Corner Bakery followed suit with the Avocado & Spinach Power Panini Thin, and Taco Bell jumped in with the Power Protein Menu that boasted burritos and bowls. These doubled the usual amount of chicken or steak, boasted more than 20 grams of protein and clocked in at fewer than 450 calories.

The promise of protein remains a consumer draw, with new offerings frequently clustered at the beginning of the year to take advantage of patrons’ post-holiday dietary resolutions. First Watch, for example, helped customers start 2022 on a healthful footing with the limited-time Superseed Protein Pancakes; the seeds in question included pepitas and sunflower with a finish of a special superseed crunch.

Urban Plates, which has been responsible for some of the most memorable menu merchandising of the past few years, entered the New Year with arresting graphics and amusing copy aimed at young men whose “goal is to be swole.” They were invited to “get ripped” by choosing one of 15 plates with 40+ grams of protein. Those hoping to be even more seriously swole could double the protein on any plate.

Spring menu introductions put protein in the spotlight, too, with Piada Italian Street Food’s Chilean Salmon Power Bowl, Noodles & Company’s test of LEANguini, wheat-based noodles that have 56% fewer carbs and 44% more protein, and Bob Evans Restaurants’ two new Farm Fresh Super Bowls including Double Meat Protein Bowl.

bro promo

The "Bro Promo" from Urban Plates./Image courtesy of Urban Plates.

Bro Bites. Protein is an equal-opportunity nutrient. While most women may choose to forgo the swole-ness it can provide, they are not at all averse to a protein-powered diet. In fact, Restaurant Business sister company Technomic reports that men and women index almost identically in their propensity to order high-protein foods. What’s more, 64% of women and 63% of men regard the phrase “high in protein” as a signifier of healthfulness.

There is, however, a somewhat more pronounced gender skew when it comes to heat levels, as 40% of men vs. 33% of women indicate a preference for super spicy foods.

This accounts for the fact that extra spicy items, the kind that score off the Scoville heat-ratings scale, have become a fixture on many menus; and they are typically targeted to young males with an implied “you-go-first” challenge. Arby’s made the implicit explicit this winter with the limited-time Diablo Dare Sandwich touted as the “spiciest sandwich on the market.” Its incendiary combination of ghost peppers, chipotles and jalapeños was accompanied by a flame-retardant vanilla milkshake.

At the same time, Zaxby’s introduced a new signature Buffalo Garlic Blaze Sauce for its popular chicken wings. The product launch was supported by a notably zany ad campaign that featured a Guy on a Buffalo Wing; there was also a specially-composed soundtrack that featured a folk song created by Jomo & The Possum Posse.

Winter specials from sibling chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s featured a promotional hook of a different sort with the Bacon Beast Burger, Bacon Beast Burrito and Bacon Beast Biscuit. The moniker was clearly a tip-off: The beastly biscuit came with six strips of the meat and targeted bacon lovers with hearty appetites.

Gender Benders. Some entrepreneurs are flipping the gender-appeal script, like The Sports Bra with its cheeky “We Support Women” slogan. This female-centric sports bar was founded in Portland, Ore., for fans who prefer to watch TV screens dedicated to women’s athletics like the WNBA. The menu showcases women-owned food and beverage suppliers, though it emphasizes familiar pub grub. There are burgers and beer, ribs and wings. The latter are prepared according to the owner’s Vietnamese family recipes, and the operation is also kid-friendly and offers an attractive children’s menu.

On the other side of the gender gap, Powerful Yogurt, which debuted in supermarkets in 2013 with the objective of disrupting the female-driven category, was quickly dubbed “brogurt.” Its point of difference is its substantial 25 grams of protein in a “man-size,” eight-ounce cup that better fits manly hands. Lest the point is lost, the packaging features a bull in the logo.

Speaking of bull, Matador Meggings has entered the athletic-apparel market with the assertion that “All superheroes wear tights.” The company founder noticed that he was the only one not wearing leggings in his yoga class and thought men should be invited to “join the spandex party.” His invitation comes with a signature design that puts the horns of a bull around the upper legs. Response to date from the female yoga practitioners who provided his inspiration is unrecorded.

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