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On the menu

TORONTO, CANADA—With Canada showing far more interest than the U.S. in minimizing the use of trans fats, one of the northerly nation’s largest casual-dining chains is draining the partially hydrogenated oil from its fryers.

Swiss Chalet announced that it would switch to sunflower oil, a naturally trans-fat-free medium, after a survey revealed that 94% of Canadians are concerned about the health risks of trans fats. The 180-unit chain also vowed to disclose the trans-fat content of all its dishes, both on menus and its web site.

The decisions came a few days after the Canadian House of Commons voted to identify ways of minimizing the use of trans fats, which in turn followed the introduction of a bill to ban the substance altogether.

“We support the initiative of the House of Commons in this regard,” Swiss Chalet COO Steven Tsambalieros said of the Commons resolution to appoint a panel to study trans-fat use and how it can be minimized.

Canada has already passed a law requiring food processors to reveal the trans-fat content of packaged foods as of Dec. 1, 2005. A similar requirement goes into effect in the U.S. in 2006.

Restaurants north of the border have been quicker to dump trans-fat oils than their American counterparts. In October, Harvey’s, another Canadian chain, switched to sunflower oil in its 344 restaurants.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s, which promised it would discontinue frying with trans-fat oil in 2002, has yet to make the switch. “We’ve reduced [trans fatty acids] in our chicken products, which was our original com­mitment,” president Mike Roberts said. “It’s one of my highest priorities.”

Ruby Tuesday and Legal Sea Foods have both garnered headlines in the U.S. with their decisions to use trans-fat-free oils.

Fats stabilized with hydrogen gas have been cited by many experts as a health threat, even in small amounts. Studies have indicated that consumption of the fat can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.

McDonald’s Sets 2005 Intros...

OAK BROOK, IL—McDonald’s will try to keep its check average and guest count climbing by introducing a fruit-and-walnut salad this spring and a chicken-salad sandwich in the summer, according to chain officials. The franchisor’s top two execs also noted that the chain’s toasted-sandwich line, Oven Selects, is now available in 400 restaurants in the U.S., and has been rolled out in Canada and Australia.

Overall, said CEO Jim Skinner, the resurging chain plans to maintain “a very robust pipeline of new-food news.” In a conference call with the press, he and president Mike Roberts cited recent menu additions as a crucial reason for the brand’s turnaround. Sales at U.S. restaurants open for at least a year rose year-over-year by 7.1% during November.

Roberts disclosed during the call that McDonald’s average check has risen 40%- 70%, though he didn’t specify the timeframe. He also noted that customer counts have steadily risen, but “we’re still well below where we were in the early ’90s.” Traffic gains have been realized at every daypart, he added.

Skinner suggested that the two products already slated for introduction are part of McDonald’s efforts to upgrade its menu. But Roberts commented that the chain’s Dollar Menu remains an important attraction for other segments of McDonald’s clientele. More than 30% of patrons buy fast food on the basis of price alone, Roberts said.

...Including Card Rollout

OAK BROOK, IL—McDonald’s skipped the holiday gift-card season in all but 400 test units last year, but a rollout of debit cards looks likely for fourth quarter 2005, said president Mike Roberts.

In a survey conducted at the start of the 2004 holiday season, the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche found that 34% of gift-card buyers planned to purchase ones redeemable for restaurant meals, compared with 25% who voiced that intent in 2002. The research suggested that the customers of McDonald’s and other fast-feeders may not be typical purchasers of gift cards, since upper-income households have a higher propensity to give the cards as gifts than did households in the under-$30,000 bracket. But the data also indicated that the payment option is more widely accepted by youngsters than it is by their parents.

A number of fast-feeders offered the cards for the first time last season, including Jack in the Box and Qdoba. The cash-loaded plastic is accepted by 58% of restaurants industrywide, according to a recent survey by Mark Kalinowski, the restaurant analyst for Smith Barney.

Big Burger = Big Sales, Hardee’s Says

CARPINTERIA, CA—The controversy surrounding the introduction of Hardee’s mega-calorie Mon­ster Thickburger helped raise the chain’s same-store sales by 5.5% during November, reported parent CKE Restaurants.

In disclosing results for the month, company officials noted that the Monster— two 1⁄4-lb. patties topped with cheese and bacon—was available for only part of the month, and that supportive advertising aired only on the last day of the sales period. “However,” the company noted in a statement to the investment community, “the aptly named 2⁄3-lb. burger garnered international media attention for its audacity.”

During the month, sister brand Carl’s Jr. also added a decadent product, the Pas­trami Burger, consisting of a single or double burger patty topped with pastrami. Similar­ly, the new option was introduced mid-month, and advertising for the item began airing on the last day, and “consequently did not substantively impact the brand’s same-store sales,” CKE said. An earlier promoted item, the Guacamole Bacon Chicken Sandwich, did help in buoying sales at Carl’s by 3.8%, CKE observed.

More Beef at Breakfast, Too

CARPINTERIA, CA—After topping a burger with pastrami as a point of differentiation (see item, above), Carl’s Jr. is trying to distinguish itself in the breakfast market by offering a burger topped with a fried egg. Burgers already make up 40% of Carl’s Jr. breakfast sales, parent CKE Restaurants noted.

“Americans’ tastes are changing at breakfast,” said Brad Haley, Carl’s marketing chief. “More and more people are now eating traditional lunchtime favorites at breakfast. Even soft drink sales are starting to rival coffee as the most-consumed beverage in the morning.”

The Breakfast Burger features one egg, bacon, hash brown nuggets, cheese, and a beef patty on a bun. Price is $2.39.

BK, Wendy’s Vie for Health Halo

DUBLIN, OH—Wendy’s and Burger King have tweaked their combo meals to offer healthier-sounding replacements for fries, but the marketing benefits may have been tempered by events immediately following each revamp.

Burger King tried to improve its image among health-conscious parents by per­mitting the fries in its Kids Meals to be junked for strawberry-flavored applesauce. Pint-sized patrons were also given the option of ordering apple juice or 1%-fat milk—regular or chocolate-flavored— in place of soft drinks.

The shift is similar to Wendy’s decision this summer to offer cups of Man­darin-orange sections as substitutes for fries in its kids’ meals.

A few days later, Wendy’s trumped BK by announcing that it would extend the fry swap to its adult combo meals. At no extra charge, patrons could trade the fries in any bundled meal for a small order of chili, a baked potato, or either of two side salads.

But the one-upping was countered by media reports that Wendy’s substitutes could contain more calories and fat than the fries they replace. As Wendy’s web site indicates, a Caesar side salad packs 21g of fat—compared to 19g of fat for Wendy’s Biggie Fries.

Wendy’s has maintained that its intent is to give its customers more varied choices, not a set diet.

Less Trans Fat, More Choices at Au Bon Pain

Au Bon Pain extended its line of trans-fat-free baked goods last month with the addition of cookies. The treats sell for $1.19-$1.39 apiece. Fourteen varieties are offered, including Confetti Cookie with M&M’s, Oatmeal Raisin, English Toffee, and Chocolate Dipped Shortbread.

“When we introduced Zero Grams Trans Fat Muffins, we saw a more than a 20% increase in muffin sales,” said Jim Fisher, VP of marketing.  “That increase, combined with the growing concern about trans fats, tells us we are in step with an issue that is important to consumers.”

Anderson Gets New Job

Logan’s Roadhouse has promoted Red Lobster alumnus Steve Anderson to the new post of VP of menu and culinary innovation. Anderson was the first full-time menu planner hired by the Cracker Barrel sister brand, which brought him aboard in Oct. 2003. Since then, Anderson and his team have developed such products as grilled chicken wings and a hot shrimp bucket.

Anderson was selected as Restaurant Business’ Menu Strategist of the Year in 2001.

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