Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Calorie Counting: But Who's Counting?

As we head into our day of gluttony, counting (or not counting) calories will be a choice we can all make. A choice we should all be able to easily make, counting calories can be a hard thing to do. Most of us rely on good ol' fashioned common sense.

As things heat up in almost anything involving Obamacare (or am I now supposed to say the Affordable Healthcare Act), one of the more overlooked aspects of the law is menu labeling. This part of the law states that any restaurant that has more than twenty units must include calorie information on the menu. While we, the Uptown, are not required to do so, I am sure at some point in the future we will be compelled to start. I think part of the thought process is that if the big boys are doing it, consumers will start asking all of us to follow suit.

I have started to see some of these calorie counts on menus. One one hand, it is nice; it can be informative. Sometimes looking at that "healthy salad," you realize that lean piece of meat might actually have less calories. But for me, this is where it ends.

As a restaurant owner (who is self described as being one of the biggest skeptics you will ever meet), I am, let's just say... skeptical. My role as an owner is to make it taste good, whether it is a veggie burger or a double beef triple cheese burger. The same goes for any chain owner.  But the reality is, there's no guarantee that the meal in your local establishment was produced with the exact same recipe, ingredients, or process as when it was sent out for testing by the corporate powers that be. Cheaters will prosper. Further more, who is going to police this?  Does the IRS have jurisdiction over this? Good thing we just switched to a more politically correct brand tea. (see last weeks newsletter)

As far as how it would affect us: There are programs and apps that can do an estimated analysis of what we put in a dish, but my guess is that it would be a guess. We barely have time to cost our specials which are sold from anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks. Adding a nutritional analysis to each special makes an already expensive process even more expensive. We would have to limit and repeat specials much more often to make this process more viable.

I have also heard arguments from the pizza industry. Leaders from the Pizza Party claim there are more than 34 million combinations of pizza that they would have to label for. If you would throw in the mix of our eclectic list of pizza/flatbread toppings I think you could make a case for 34 billion combinations. If you throw in a choice of halving toppings I suppose there could be 34 trillion combinations. We already know the people in Washington have no idea of what the difference is between a million, billion or a trillion.

Adding to this feeding frenzy, we are at a time when our entire industry has no idea what our largest expense is going to cost us next month, next year or even in the distant future. In some establishments, like ours, we now spend more on labor and labor related costs than everything else put together including food and liquor. Sending that number up over 50% will be the nail in the coffin for many places.

What I find most disturbing about menu labeling, is that all of this effort might not make one bit of difference in what we, as a people, eat. Just this past week, some surveys started to surface about how people are using this menu labeling information. The point of calorie counts on fast food restaurant menus is to spur customers to eat more healthfully, but a new study by New York University Langone Medical Center researchers suggests they might not really work! At some fast food establishments on the East Coast, a survey was done pre and post menu labeling:

  • Less than half of patrons, on average, notice the calorie counts on menus.
  • The counts didn't seem to have any impact on what they ordered and how often they frequented the restaurant.
  • The New York City part of the survey revealed patrons actually ordered more calories after menu labeling.
  • On a good note, it showed that teens were less likely to buy a full-calorie drink if they saw the calorie counts for drinks posted.

Fast food and large chains are a staple for many, many people and I would guess that these people would need, in general, more nutritional guidance. You can't force it down their throats. You can lead them to water but you can't make them.....

In the end, I agree it is a nice thing to offer your customer. We could do a rough analysis of each dish, and then you would have to trust us. Then you could compare us to our competition to see how much bang you get for flavor/calorie/buck.

It is really starting to become a complicated formula. There are some splurges on a menu that when a customer orders, they don't even want to think about the calories much less having them staring back into their eyes. There are ways that market forces will eventually make this a larger part of the menu. We just have to use good ol' plain common sense.

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