Restaurant Executives Say Healthier Menu Items Make Sense Only When They Make For a Healthier Bottom Line
Staff at the Produce for Better Health Foundation conducted a study of how senior menu development and marketing executives at 28 leading U.S. restaurant chains decide whether to offer healthier foods on their menus. Under a subcontract, staff at Technomic, a food service research firm, interviewed 41 executives between September and December 2005.
The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (32(5): 383388, 2007; abstract available online), reported that:
- Increasing sales and profits are the most important overall issues of concern to restaurant executives.
- Executives considering changes to their menus care most about whether a new item will attract new customers or maintain the current customer base, and how it will affect sales and profits.
- Restaurants offer healthier menu items only when executives believe the demand is sufficient to make it financially worthwhile.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) provided a grant of $105,581 to the Produce for Better Health Foundation to support this unsolicited project from June 2005 through August 2007.
According to studies published in Preventive Medicine, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Journal of the American Dietetic Association and elsewhere, Americans have increased the percentage of meals they consume away from home over the past two decades. The prevalence of obesity in the United States has increased significantly during that same period. Greater consumption of away-from-home foods has been associated with increased intake of calories, total fat, saturated fat, added sugars and sodium, fewer fruits and vegetables and less milk, fiber and vitamins. Little data are available describing the factors that influence decisions by restaurant management about whether to offer healthier foods.
Staff at the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation that works to promote a healthier food environment, studied how restaurant chains plan their menus and identified barriers to offering more fruits and vegetables. An advisory committee helped to guide the work, known as the Healthy Menu Study.
Under a subcontract, staff at Technomic, a Chicago-based food service research firm, interviewed 41 executives from 12 fast-food chains and 16 full-service chains in all sales volume categories between September and December 2005. Through structured interviews, researchers obtained qualitative data about the menu development process and factors influencing decisions to offer healthier menu options and prepared a report on the findings. (See the Bibliography.)
The Technomic report was the basis of an article published by the study team in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. (See the Bibliography.) The team presented findings at three industry events, but did not meet its goal of disseminating the results more widely due to staff turnover.
According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine article (32(5): 383-388, 2007; abstract available online), most restaurant executives said:
- Increasing sales and profits are the most important overall issues (mentioned by 25 respondents from 15 chains). The majority of executives said they would not add a new item to their menu unless they were confident that it would contribute to sales and profit growth. One industry executive commented, "If you want to stay employed and stay in business, you have to grow your sales and increase your profits."
- When considering changes to their menus, their two most important considerations are:
- Whether the new item will attract new customers or maintain the current customer base (24 respondents from 20 chains).
- How the new item will affect sales and profits (22 respondents from 12 chains).
- They will offer healthier menu items only when they believe demand is sufficient to make it worthwhile (22 respondents from 18 chains). Many operators did not perceive a large demand for healthier foods and felt that most diners prefer to indulge themselves when they eat out.
- Obstacles that prevent them from offering more fruits and vegetables on their menus include:
- Short shelf life (23 respondents from 19 chains).
- Supply issues (14 respondents from 13 chains).
- Low sales (12 respondents from 11 chains).
- High cost (11 respondents from 10 chains).
- Storage space requirements (10 respondents from 9 chains).
- Their menus will contain more fresh and innovative foods, with bolder and spicier flavors in the future. They expect increased use of ethnic products, such as Asian vegetables and tropical fruits.
The authors noted in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine article that their study was limited by the need to keep the interview to a moderate length and by the absence of a true probability sample.
They wrote that study results should be viewed as indicative of views among restaurant executives, not a precise accounting of them.
- Contracting with an outside source may be the best way to reach high-level industry executives. Technomic has a longstanding relationship with the restaurant industry, which gave interviewers ready access to people willing to provide candid insights. (Project Director)
AFTER THE GRANT
The study team is disseminating its American Journal of Preventive Medicine article to stakeholders and other interested parties. In addition, the Produce for Better Health Foundation is developing a PowerPoint presentation of its findings, which will be posted on its Web site.
GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION
Research and Communications Activities to Promote Adding Healthy Choices to the Nation's Restaurant Menus
Produce for Better Health Foundation (Wilmington, DE)
Dates: June 2005 to August 2007
Kathy Hoy, Ed.D., R.D.
(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)
Glanz K, Resnicow K, Seymour J, Hoy K, Stewart H, Lyons M and Goldberg J. "How Major Restaurant Chains Plan Their Menus: The Role of Profit, Demand, and Health." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(5): 383388, 2007. Abstract available online.
Trends in Healthier Eating and Fruit and Vegetable Usage in Chain Restaurants, Chicago: Technomic, Inc., March 2006.
Report prepared by: Carl A. Taylor
Reviewed by: Karyn Feiden
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: Rona Smyth Henry