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Getting in on the healthy dining trend

Give entrepreneurs a trend and they'll try to exploit it. Present them with a groundswell like America's heightened interest in eating better, and you could incite a gold rush.  Why, then, with weight loss emerging as a major and potentially permanent consumer anxiety, are there so few health-focused concepts in this year's newcomer roundup?

Some clues are provided by the few exceptions on the list. With the major chains already touting waist-friendly options, challengers are crowing about their other attractions—for investors as much as guests.

Three-unit KnowFat Lifestyle Grille claims two: The inclusion of a retail sector within each facility, where visitors routinely spend far more for nutritional supplements than they do for a meal; and the involvement of George Naddaff, the entrepreneur who parlayed a New England carryout shop into Boston Chicken, then sold it for rock-star dollars to several Blockbuster alumni. The 74-year-old has jumped on more bandwagons than the Rose Parade's grand marshal, from gourmet pizza to fast-casual sandwiches. But this, he asserts in his pitches for the brand, is the QE II.

KnowFat grew out of a seven-year-old retail/foodservice hybrid in the Greater Boston area, called Low Fat No Fat. The strip-mall concept has been tweaked by Naddaff and his partners into a 3,000-sq.-ft. franchising vehicle, with double the retail space of a Low Fat, or 800 sq. ft. at the entrance. According to Naddaff, 20% of Low Fat's restaurant customers also shop in the store area, where they spend an average of $25. Combine that with a typical meal ticket of $8.50, he says, and you have a mean expenditure of $14 per customer. He pegs the traffic at the three Low Fats at 500-600 each per day, which translates into sales of at least $49,000 per week. The investment for a store, he says, should range from $550,000 to $800,000, but the chain has yet to construct an actual prototype.

Similarly, a new menu had not yet been printed as of presstime. Included are popular carryovers from the old line-up, like chicken meatball sandwiches and wraps, as well as new selections like Air Fries and Protein Pilaf, offered as sides. Fat and calorie information is available for each item, and a nutritional breakdown of the whole order is provided on the check.

Half the foodservice sales of the Low Fats—which will be re-dubbed KnowFats —comes from lunch, and half from dinner. Breakfast items, including egg-white-only selections, are offered all day. Sixty-five percent of guests get their order to go, says Naddaff, who says that propensity will bring down future units' seating costs. He noted that KnowFats is only interested in inline locations, and that the brand will grow by awarding development areas to experienced multi-unit operators.

A health-promoting building is part of the updated marketing pitch for Just Fresh, a group of fresh-food cafes and markets with a strong following in the Carolinas. The 12-unit chain asserts in its descriptive materials that the concept's concern for larger social issues, including nutrition, is reflected in more than just its salads, wraps, and sticky buns. Earlier this year, for instance, it announced that its newest store would be the first to meet the criteria of the U.S. Green Buildings Council's Sustainable Design program. Toward that end, the unit would be constructed of wheatboard, a rigid material consisting of compressed wheat straws, which supposedly emits fewer hazardous fumes than plywood or particleboard. Urinals are water-free, to save that resource, and the place was designed to make greater use of natural lighting, which should cut energy usage by 10%, according to headquarters. Because of that giveback to the environment, says the chain, it qualifies for breaks on permits, to the tune of $7,500. "We expect to save about 25% in total ownership cost over the life of the property," says franchisee Dana Sinker. A commitment to the well-being of customers and communities is trumpeted on Just Fresh's web site, which also includes a conventional franchisee sales pitch. Development costs are estimated to run from $450,000-$625,000.

Finer distinctions are offered by Froots, an 8-unit smoothies concept whose founders might've visited a Jamba Juice or two before revving up their blenders. (Jamba's descriptions of its signature items: "Each one is filled with refreshing fruit flavor and provides 3-6 servings of fruit to get you on your way to 5-a-day!" Froots' description: "Each one is filled with refreshing fruit flavors and provides 3-6 servings of fruit to get your day off to a vibrant start!") But there are some differences. For one thing, inline units offer more than just meals in a cup. Inside those 1,000-2,000-sq.-ft. versions, customers can also grab one of 12 salads or 14 wraps. Soups and even party platters are also offered. For another, the fledgling concept can boast that it's close to its targeted customers, including students. VP David Lopez is still completing his degree in finance.

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