Market Share

It’s hold the bread, add the lettuce at some fast-food chains



Healthier choices at fast-food restaurants? Many say they’re trying to provide options, if only to stop customers from going somewhere else. 

Captain D’s Seafood Restaurant is cooking up four new grilled entrées and grilled fish tenders as part of a new kids meal lineup to provide healthier cuisine. 

Chick-fil-A added three new premium salads and a chicken wrap since last April, significantly boosting the Atlanta-based restaurant chain’s healthy food offerings.

Fatburger Salads

Salads are on the menu at Fatburger, one of many chains adding healthy choices to maintain their hold on $200 billion in annual sales.

Dairy Queen rolled out Orange Julius Light Smoothies, with 170 calories per 12 ounces rather than 250, at 5,000 locations in the United States and Canada.

Don’t call it a revolution—cutting 70 calories doesn’t quite live up to that label—but instead an evolution toward adding healthier options at restaurant chains. Driven by consumer demand, those restaurants are among many taking steps to boost or at least retain market share.

The stakes are high for players in the QSR industry that’s expected to post 2013 sales of roughly $200 billion. While most of those sales come from folks seeking fast food that’s quick and indulgent, insiders say restaurateurs must continually find ways cater to consumers calling for healthier fare.

Playing defense

About 64 percent of consumers agree it’s important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition, states the 2012 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report by Technomic. The figure rose from 57 percent in 2010. As well, low-calorie, low-fat and low-sugar menu descriptions remain highly important to consumers’ health perceptions.

Darren Tristano of Technomic says restaurants not offering healthy alternatives might drive away potential customers, suffering a loss of revenue and perhaps losing customers to a competitor.

With same-store sales moderating at some major chains, Tristano says the only way those businesses can grow now is by serving a larger share of people eating out more frequently. He says Chick-fil-A has done a great job with items like salads and grilled chicken, while KFC is much more indulgent-focused. 

“If you gain patronage from consumer groups seeking healthier fare, you have an opportunity to win market share,” Tristano says.

The  National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell initiative is evidence of how eateries are becoming more proactive with healthy menu options. The voluntary group,  geared to helping parents and children make better eating choices, grew to 140 brands representing 42,000 restaurant locations nationally as of December 2013 . 

The brands include Burger King, Chick fil-A, Sonic, Arby’s, Wendy’s,  Dairy Queen and independent operators. The number of brands and restaurant locations has more than doubled since the NRA launched the program with Healthy Dining in July 2011.

Joy Dubost,  NRA’s director of nutrition and healthy living, attributes the gains to consumers requesting healthier food options and restaurants providing them. She says an increased focus on childhood obesity and children’s nutrition are contributing factors.

The NRA is partnering with Kids LiveWell participants to continually improve the health quality of food they offer in a couple of new ways. The KidsLiveWell sponsorship program launched in 2012 aims to ensure the supply chain meets consumer demands to provide healthier options.

“We’re working with the packaged goods industry along with food suppliers like Sysco to ensure they can promote healthier products to make it easier for the operators,” Dubost says.

Kids in the kitchen

Encouraging more innovation, the NRA and McCormick For Chefs created the KidsLive Recipe Challenge. It allows restaurant operators and contract foodservice providers to provide recipes. The challenge is a contest judged by a panel of children. Winners receive an all-expense paid trip to the NRA’s annual national convention. 

Fatburger Turkey burger

A turkey burger at Fatburger has 480 calories compared with a medium hamburger at 590.

Dubost says Kraft, PepsiCo and Kellogg are among sponsoring companies working directly with independent operators.  The sponsors have developed a book of recipes that meet the Kids LiveWell nutrition criteria, allowing operators to choose what recipes  they want to provide as meals.

“It’s important that we provide healthier options for children to ensure they’re establishing good eating patterns at a young age,” according to Dubost.

Captain D’s launch of grilled fish tenders meets the NRA’s KidsLiveWell nutritional guidelines. Nashville-based Captain D’s was among nine restaurant companies that recently joined the NRA program. The launch is part of a broader move by Captain D’s to expand its menu with new grilled items.  

Beyond the fryer

To accomplish this, the company is investing in a new cooking platform that includes installing chain broilers at its stores to grill fish and seafood from scratch quickly. Jonathan Muhtar, Captain D’s chief marketing officer, said the new items are being introduced after guests requested grilled seafood options be added to the menu.

“Cooking with the new broiler has also enhanced the taste and flavor of our previously existing non-fried items such as our wild Alaskan salmon and tilapia,” Muhtar says. Some under-performing items like bite-sized shrimp and fried oysters will be eliminated as the new items are launched, he says.

For years a provider of items like veggie burgers, turkey burgers and salads, the Beverly Hills, California-based Fatburger recently tested gluten-free buns and a lettuce wrap burger alternative in Seattle and some Southern California locations. Vice President of Marketing Thayer Wiederhorn says Fatburger is offering the new alternatives based on customer demand and online feedback from patrons. A medium Fatburger is 590 calories and the turkey burger is 480 calories; the lettuce wrap burger comes in well under both.

Not so guilty

Hoping to build customer frequency and repeat business, Dairy Queen is offering various varieties of  Orange Julius Light Smoothies. More than 95 percent of the Minneapolis-based company’s franchise locations throughout North America serve the beverages.  

The chain hopes to benefit from consumers’ love of smoothies. “We  wanted to provide Light Smoothies, which are a little less caloric and allow you to have a treat that you don’t feel so guilty about,” says  Maria Hokanson,  senior director of U.S. product and brand marketing at Dairy Queen.