Bytes to Measure Bites

By Tim Clark, Contributing Editor | June 10, 2011

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of Americans are obese and the number is growing. In response, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently provided details on how the federal government proposes to enact a new menu labeling provision, Section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, enacted last year. At its core, the law requires restaurants with 20 or more locations operating under the same brand name to provide calories on the menu and additional nutrition information upon request. Industry pundits support the law and agree that a new, consistent nutrition standard is needed. At the time of this writing, the FDA is seeking public comment on the proposed regulations for the next sixty days, and hopes to issue final rules by the end of the year. Many popular restaurant chains, like Firehouse Subs and Au Bon Pain, are taking a pro-active approach to meet the new regulations.
 
First things first
To first implement this law, the Food and Drug Administration must provide detailed rules for restaurants on how to present calories on menus, menu boards and drive-thru boards, as well as how to present and provide additional nutrition information to consumers. The National Restaurant Association strongly supported and advocated for the law that will provide consumers with uniform and consistent nutrition information in hundreds of thousands of restaurant locations nationwide, according to Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. “The publication of the proposed regulations in the Federal Register is the next step forward in providing the industry with consistent, national requirements on how to implement the new uniform nutrition information standard.” Online tool helps Firehouse Subs
 
With about 400 restaurants in 24 states, Firehouse Subs (www.firehousesubs.com) sells hot subs and is known for its big portions and high quality meats. Firehouse is growing at a solid pace and added 50 new restaurants last year with 70 slated for this year. According to John Raulerson, director of technical services for Firehouse Subs, there are a few different options to take when it comes to meeting the new menu labeling laws. Some options are more cumbersome and expensive than others, says Raulerson, who began his search for a suitable vendor to meet his company’s needs a few years ago and chose FoodCalc’s (www.foodcalc.com) MenuCalc program. MenuCalc is a Web-based software that is designed to assist restaurants with the calculation of the nutritional value of menu items. “They are endorsed by the National Restaurant Association so that was a big plus for us.”
 
It took a few weeks to enter and update recipes into the tool, yet Raulerson says that maintenance is minimal since Firehouse typically doesn’t have a lot of new products to update. “It’s a very easy-to-use, online tool and maintains all of Firehouse’s 200 different recipes. It’s very easy to make changes on the fly by pulling up the recipe and making the proper updates.”
 
Raulerson also notes that the functionality from other vendors he researched was either too complex or required a sizeable up-front investment. FoodCalc’s subscription-based model made the best sense for Firehouse, he says.
 
Given the number of restaurant brands with a larger footprint than Firehouse, the possibility of being monitored, especially right away, by the FDA will be very low, says Raulerson. Firehouse customers, however, will scrutinize the nutritional information once it is available on every one of the restaurant’s menus. “[The new labeling laws] are more about customer scrutiny. But if the FDA wanted all of our menu labeling information, we certainly could do that very easily, especially since they accept database-based nutritional analysis.”
 
Au Bon Pain commits to nutritional transparency
Knowing that the new menu labeling regulations were coming, Au Bon Pain (www.aubonpain.com) took a proactive approach last year, working closely with HealthyDin ingFinder.com to help ensure nutritional accuracy of its menu items. HealthyDiningFinder.com and participating restaurants are promoted to the public through a network of partnerships with employers, health organizations, health insurance companies, weight control programs, fitness centers and through the media.
 
According to Ed Frechette, director of marketing, Au Bon Pain’s New York and Philadelphia restaurants already had labeling requirements in place. So instead of developing unique labeling pieces just for these two markets, Au Bon Pain decided to update its entire menu board system to include calories. “Starting last summer, all of our menus included caloric information and starting this spring, all of our bakery identification cards include calorie information. We have received more than a couple of comments on the calories in our muffins,” says Frechette.
 
Au Bon Pain also made a commitment to nutritional transparency by installing nutrition kiosks in all of its cafes. Frechette says many guests use them to confirm that an item is vegetarian, but others use it to determine sodium levels or sugar content. This same information is available on Au Bon Pain’s website. “Interestingly, since we posted the calories, we have seen some shifts in purchases, but they are usually within the same category,” he says. “If a bakery customer comes in for a baked good, he or she may switch within the category to a lower calorie option, but they are still making that bakery purchase. The same has held true in our sandwich category.”
 
While it remains to be seen how the availability of nutritional information will impact guests’ food choices overall, the restaurant industry is preparing to meet its end of the bargain. 
 
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