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Restaurants dig into calorie-counting chore


Can you guess the calories above? A. Pancheros Mexican Grill burrito, 930 calories. B. Philly Pretzel Factory pretzel, 145. C. PizzaRev margherita pizza (the whole pie), 490.

By this October, Back Yard Burgers CEO David McDougall aims to have calorie counts posted on menu items at all of the brand’s locations.

That conversion will come after the Nashville, Tennessee-based company plans to test menu boards with the calorie labeling in April.

The brand is among hundreds of chain restaurants and similar food establishments with 20 or more locations required to meet new rules the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced late last year.

“The challenge will be creating a menu that is visually appealing with so much information on it and meets all the legal requirements,” McDougall says.

The new laws come nearly five years after some businesses fought against them. They were initially passed as part of the overall Affordable Care Act in 2010, but food operators won’t have to start complying until December 2015. The rules also apply to owners or operators of vending machines with 20 or more machines.

The menu-labeling costs will be massive. Restaurants and other food operators will spend close to $1.5 billion just to calculate the number of calories in each product and change menu boards where they don’t have electronic menu boards, estimates Michael Seid of MSA Worldwide in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Firehouse Subs

Firehouse Subs hired MenuCalc to count its calories, and introduced six new sandwiches last April with counts under 500.

“The biggest issue for restaurants is that they will have to get it done by reputable companies, and every time they want to add a new product, they will have to get it done again,” Seid says about calorie counting.

The calorie data must be displayed on menus, menu boards and drive-thru menu boards. Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano says it will cost restaurants on average $1,500 per unit to make the conversion. He estimates roughly 500 U.S. chain restaurants with a total of around 216,000 locations in 2014 will be most affected. “The costs will probably be a bigger problem for operators who struggle with very tight margins.”

Marla Topliff, president of Rosati’s Pizza based in Elgin, Illinois, and chair of the National Restaurant Association’s Pizzeria Industry Council, says the final FDA ruling was favorable for the pizza industry.

It allows pizzerias to calculate calories by the slice as opposed to the whole pie. Pizza chains have contended over the years, it would be difficult for them to calculate millions of possible topping combinations.

“Although some things remain vague, we are trying to get ready now, even as we wait for final clarification,” Topliff says.

But she added a ruling on alcohol labeling caught the restaurant industry off guard and carries many specific mandates. For example, while beer sold in bottles with already existing labels will be compliant, regulations for mixed cocktails remain murky, she says.

“If you add mixers and you have to figure out the nutritionals for vodka and cranberry juice, then calculate that as a whole drink, you’re essentially asking the bartenders to be math wizards.”

For Rosati’s Pizza, with more than 200 locations nationally, Topliff hopes the brand does not have to boost pricing to pay for the new rules. The brand is looking at what menu items to keep or cut.

Rosati’s hired vendor MenuTrinfo to calculate its menu items and post new caloric data as the menu is updated. Rosati’s plans to train and introduce franchisees to a new, sleeker menu to help them become compliant. “This will be a big challenge for us and the entire restaurant industry,” Topliff says. 

Another brand, PizzaRev, has launched a nutrition portal built by Nutritionix. Accessible via the Los Angeles-based restaurant’s online menu, the portal allows patrons to configure the nutritional makeup of pizzas on smartphones while reading the menu at PizzaRev’s 22 open restaurants. Franchisees are using the portal and informing customers where they can find the data.

Coralville, Iowa-based Pancheros Mexican Grill, a franchise with just over 65 locations, plans to add calorie content to all menus and menu boards inside its restaurants and additional nutritional information on an info sheet by request by December 2015. It will provide updated, more comprehensive and easier-to-read nutrition information document by download on its website by September 2015. The new ruling is “something Pancheros has been working on for awhile and now that there are federal guidelines in place, it will be easier to execute the process effectively,’’ says CEO Rodney Anderson.

The federal regulation supersedes local and state rules on menu labeling and provides consistency on a national level, says Firehouse Subs CEO Don Fox, a board member of the National Restaurant Association. Many restaurant chains, including McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A, have already begun posting calories.

Fox says the Jacksonville, Florida-based Firehouse Subs made the conversion mainly on menu boards in July 2014 at 821 franchised and 32 company sites.

The franchisor covered about 75 percent of the $2,000 cost per location. Also, the chain has to ensure calories are posted on its website for online ordering.

Firehouse Subs hired vendor MenuCalc to calculate calories. In April 2014, the brand introduced six new sandwiches and four salads with fewer than 500 calories each. “It was a strategic move to win customers with a light calorie menu,” Fox says.

At Back Yard Burgers, McDougall estimates it will cost the franchisor about $1,000 per unit to make the changes at 22 company and 43 franchise sites. The brand, which used a third party to calculate calories, plans to soon add items that are around 400 calories to offer patrons healthier food. McDougall says its next promotion will include a grilled mahi-mahi burger that will be close to 400 calories.

For its money, Philly Pretzel Factory estimates menu-labeling costs will be under $200 each for its 30 to 40 company and franchise stores that have not converted to digital menu boards and have printed menu boards.

Count this

Brands affected by the menu-labeling rules should gather all recipes and supplier product information to start the calorie-counting process, says Betsy Craig, CEO of MenuTrinfo, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based nutrition labeling and analysis firm. Other tips to consider:

  1. Determine if you are going to handle menu labeling yourself or hire an outside company to do the project.
  2. If you plan to meet the mandates yourself, be sure to fully understand the final FDA rules to ensure compliance by visiting www.fda.gov/food/IngredientsPackaging/Labeling.
  3. It is critical your final calorie count numbers are clearly displayed and can easily be read by customers. If you do that yourself, ensure the final information is accurate.
  4. If you hire an outside vendor, ask the business key questions like when the report will be completed, client satisfaction of their work and documented information on the final menu-labeling outcome.


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