TrendWire, July 2011

TrendWire, July 2011

Food & Drink

TrendWire, July 2011


The Food Channel Trendwire
July 2011 • Volume 25, Number 4 •

Restaurant Diners Actually Starting to Make Healthier Choices

Okay, first the bad news. You may have seen the report issued earlier this month that the obesity epidemic continues to widen across America, with only one state in the country showing an obesity rate below 20% (Colorado barely squeezed under at 19.8%). Mississippi had the distinction of coming in number one at 34.4%, according to the report issued by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Twelve states have obesity rates over 30%. Seven states have seen their rates double in the past 20 years.

But…there’s a glimmer of light peeking over this bulging horizon. A number of restaurant chains are finding that consumers—after years of saying they want healthier menu choices—have finally begun to actually order these better-for-you choices in 2011.

Case in point: Applebee’s. For the first time in the casual dining chain’s history, the top selling entrée on the menu came from its under-550 calorie menu. Applebee’s diners are really digging the Signature Sirloin with Garlic Herb Sauce. The chain’s president, Mike Archer, took note. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Archer said. “We’re seeing a sea change in consumer behavior. This is the first time I’ve seen intentions and actions align.”

IHOP reports that its Simple & Fit menu, offering a range of under-600 calorie choices, now accounts for 8% of entrées sold. The pancake chain’s Spinach, Mushroom and Tomato Omelet at 330 calories is now one of IHOP’s best sellers. IHOP president Jean Birch says restaurants today must offer healthy options, because some customers simply won’t go to places where better-for-you choices are not available.

Friendly’s has become a friend to diners looking for healthier fare. Four of its under-550 calorie LTOs have sold so well that they’ve been moved to the permanent menu this summer.

Even the macho chains run by CKE Restaurants, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, home of Monster Burgers and mondo breakfast sandwiches, have given heavy promotion to their new turkey burger that comes in at around 500 calories.

Why is this finally happening? What’s behind this recent conversion to nutrition consciousness when dining out? Michelle Obama’s high profile anti-obesity campaign probably has something to do with it, as well as best-sellers like the Eat This, Not That series authored by David Zinczenko.

Look what’s happening on TV with shows like NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” And the afternoon is populated with health-oriented programs such as The Doctors. TV’s Dr. Oz is on magazine covers everywhere it seems, advising people to eat smarter to live longer.

Or maybe it was simply a matter of time. Look how long it took for the anti-smoking campaign to show real results. Maybe the message is just finally starting to sink in that many of us are just too darn fat, and it’s time to start doing something about it.

It’s happening on kids menus, too.

Olive Garden just launched a healthier kids menu with fruit smoothies replacing milkshakes and grapes taking the place of fries—they actually took fries completely off the menu. McDonald’s would probably never do that, but the burger chain has been offering apple slices as an alternative to them in Happy Meals for a while now.

Just last week the National Restaurant Association, teaming up with, introduced “Kids LiveWell,” a national initiative that highlights how restaurants are creating innovative solutions to provide better-for-you menu options.

According to Dawn Sweeney, NRA president and CEO, more than 15,000 restaurant locations are participating in the initial launch, offering young guests a selection of Kids LiveWell choices that must meet certain health standards. The program is described as a first-of-its-kind voluntary initiative that shows the restaurant industry’s commitment to offering healthful menu items for children, with a focus on increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and limiting unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium.

Many of America’s top chains have come aboard as charter participants, including Au Bon Pain, Bonefish Grill, Burger King, Burgerville, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Chevys Fresh Mex, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Corner Bakery Cafe, Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, El Pollo Loco, Friendly’s, IHOP, Joe’s Crab Shack, Outback Steakhouse, Silver Diner, Sizzler, T-Bones Great American Eatery and pizza.

It looks like nearly everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. We may be a little out of breath, but we’re climbing on at long last.

Beverage Trends 2011: What Is America Drinking?

The Food Channel is preparing its beverage trend report for the coming 12 months. The top ten list is compiled based on research conducted in conjunction with CultureWaves®, the International Food Futurists® and Mintel International.

Here’s a preview of what you’ll see.

Switching Sweeteners. There’s a real shuffle going on when it comes to how we sweeten our drinks. We’re seeing a return to pure cane sugar and away from high fructose corn syrup, and plant-based natural sweeteners such as stevia and agave nectar are gaining new converts every day. Have you tried the new agave-sweetened Oogavé soft drinks in flavors like strawberry-rhubarb and watermelon-cream?

Health Is Huge. Enhanced waters continue to flood the market, offering choices with added vitamins and targeted nutrition. We’re seeing fortified waters that make claims for anti-ageing, bone health, cardiovascular health, diabetes, digestion, cognitive and mood. In the “energy” category, you can choose a shot that keeps you going for five hours, or one of the new “anti-energy” drinks designed make you mellow and relaxed.

The News on Booze. In the world of beer, wine and spirits some of the hottest drinks being poured are craft beers and bourbon. The buzz is definitely back for small-batch craft beers across the U.S. from NYC to L.A. Distillers in Kentucky—where 95% of the world’s bourbon is made—can barely keep up with the demand for this suddenly trendy brown liquor. Then there’s the emerging trend of alcoholic beverages being served in some locations of big name fast food restaurants.

D.I.Y. Flavor. More and more people are taking the matter of flavor into their own hands, flavoring water with a touch of citrus, or a pinch of herbs. We’re expanding our coffee palate with new creamers in flavors such as honey-vanilla crème and white chocolate caramel latte. One of the new flavors to watch for in the back half of 2011: Pisco from South America. There’s much more, too. To view the full top ten beverage trends, visit the home page at It’s coming soon!

Everyone’s a Critic: The Debate Over Online Restaurant Reviews

Nearly every restaurant has probably been stung from time to time by a bad review sent out to the social media multitude via review sites such as Yelp, which this month posted its 20 millionth online review.

The subject of social media reviews and their impact on restaurants is a contentious issue for those in the foodservice industry.

Nowhere was that more evident than at this year’s National Restaurant Show in Chicago. One of the highlights of the event was a debate the NRA staged between Luther Lowe, manager of local business outreach for Yelp, and Stefan Richter, the Finnish Chef who was a runner-up on the fifth season of Top Chef and the owner of restaurants both in the U.S. and Finland. The face-off was billed straightforwardly enough: Are Online Reviews a Good or Bad Thing?

In the audience were restaurant owners and operators whose livelihoods can be greatly affected by negative—or positive—reviews. It’s an understatement to say the debate was well attended.

Commenting before the debate began, Lowe told The Food Channel, “Restaurants are still uncomfortable with the idea that your experience is out there for the world to read. Whether they like it or not, the genie is out of the bottle. Fifty-three million people a month use [Yelp] to figure out where to eat.”

The ability to view a gathering of many opinions is stronger than listening to one, Lowe says. “The whole reason someone is going to Yelp is that the consensus is more powerful than one writer or critic,” he said.

“How do you find a great restaurant online? The ones who know that are locals,” Lowe continued. “People these days go online to figure out where to eat, and restaurants should take advantage of it.”

Countering those comments, Chef Richter says he considers it a bit unfair that diners issue their complaints after leaving the restaurant. “If someone has a problem, I would love the chance to explain. People feel entitled these days because they watch the Food Network and think they know food.”

Richter also deplores the anonymity of online reviews, and the NRA debate moderator noted that there can even be shady operators who can get their friends to do negative reviews of competitors.

But Lowe argues the point. “I disagree that it’s anonymous,” he says. “Photos and names are used. Yelp is as much a tech company as an online review site. We are trying to ensure it has quality content. Yelp is in the business of providing trustworthy content for users. And we offer tools to help at”

Read a complete blow-by-blow of the Lowe/Richter NRA Show debate, and check out Food Channel’s opinion on who won.

The people at Yelp often refer to the 1/9/90 rule of online reviews, which basically states that only 1 percent of online review users will actively create content (write a review). Another 9 percent will participate by commenting, rating or sharing, while the remaining 90 percent will simply read without commenting.

In other words, most people on sites like Yelp don’t write reviews, they read them. This group represents prospective customers. They go to review sites looking for a new place to eat. Restaurants need to be seen there, hopefully with multi-star ratings.

Operators can use review sites to build their business

Yelp suggests you consider creating a check-in offer. Check-ins provide a way for your customers to exclaim their love for your business: by literally walking through your door and telling their friends they’ve arrived at your place of business via their mobile devices. Some restaurants offer incentives for customers who check in, hoping they’ll be ambassadors for the place, and spread the good news about what’s good today.

One blog site suggests that a bad review can actually work to a restaurant’s advantage. How so? First of all, people can get suspicious of a review page that’s overflowing with gushing reviews, wondering if someone has hired a bunch of “plants” to write fake reviews. The occasional bad review lends some credibility to a place’s overall ratings. Most people realize you can’t be perfect every time.

Another way to benefit from a bad review is to post a response that demonstrates a willingness to correct the problem and make things right. It shows that the operator cares and has taken measures to make sure the next dining experience will be a positive one.

The bottom line: It’s too late to turn back the clock on social media and all those online reviews. They’re not going away. Restaurant operators can choose to ignore them and focus on delivering a great dining experience, or they can decide to engage in the social media process, seeing it as a new form of advertising which, though they can’t totally control it, they can use as a new marketing and self-evaluation tool.

The Food Channel® also publishes a great consumer newsletter, called FoodWire®. To receive a copy, please register your email address at

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