by Patricia Nicholson
Many of today’s most popular diets focus on restricting or modifying carbohydrate intake. Serving customers who may not want bread, rice or potatoes can be a challenge for restaurants.
Low-carb diets such as Atkins and South Beach, as well as glycemic index diets such as The Zone and Sugarbusters that frown on certain types of carbohydrates, have become so popular that food manufacturers have begun to target this market. Weston Bakeries is launching a specialized bread product, breweries are selling low-carb beer and Frito-Lay is expected to introduce low-carb Doritos.
Foodservice operators are also tapping this niche. Specialized delivery services are now available that drop off a day’s worth of diet-appropriate meals and snacks on dieters’ doorsteps each morning. Many fast food chains are developing bunless burgers designed to be served with a fork. Two restaurant chains – T.G.I. Friday’s and Subway Restaurants – have introduced menu items that aren’t just low in carbs, but that carry the seal of approval of Atkins Nutritionals Inc., the company behind the best-known low-carb diet.
Les Winograd of Subway’s public relations department says Subway had not noticed any downturn in business as a result of the diet trend. But he says the company’s research indicated that a large percentage of people who claimed to be following a diet said they were following a carbohydrate-controlled plan. Feedback from customers looking for carb-controlled options was also a factor.
"People were asking for sandwiches without bread," Winograd explains. "And they were asking for the insides of the bread to be removed." All these elements added up to a large segment of the population that was being underserved.
The new products – a chicken bacon ranch wrap and a turkey bacon melt wrap – were launched December 29, 2003. Winograd says they have been very well received.
While counting carbs might seem at odds with a chain that serves most of its menu between bread, Subway has been very successful catering to dieters. Winograd says low-calorie and low-fat options have become the cornerstone of Subway’s menu.
"But the carb-controlled diet is a different train of thought. So basically what we’re trying to do is offer more choices to people, and tell people who are following this type of diet that there’s something at our restaurant that they can eat," he says. Subway’s two Atkins-endorsed products are 11 net carbs or less. Subway customers may also order any other menu sandwich to be prepared in the new tortilla wrap, although these custom sandwiches do not carry the Atkins endorsement or the pre-calculated carb count.
"It’s basically finding a substitute for the bread, because we’re about sandwiches, and you can’t just have a bunch of meat and cheese in your hand without wrapping it in something," Winograd says. "That was more or less the challenge, coming up with a product that passed our approval system: something that tastes good and met the Atkins nutritional values."
From a manufacturing standpoint, the wrap is a bit more complicated than traditional bread.
"When it comes from the bread company, it’s a little more labour-intensive for them, it’s very sticky, it has to have dedicated people working on it. It doesn’t have the same ingredients as a typical piece of bread," Winograd says. But because the wrap was the only new component of the Atkins-approved sandwiches, the product launch was relatively quick and easy. The bacon, turkey and chicken for the filling were already on the menu, although the cheese is shredded rather than sliced
Many other restaurants are taking a wait-and-see attitude to the low-carb phenomenon. At SIR Corp., executive chef Mark Bibby says customer requests and feedback about low-carb diets have come mainly from SIR Corp.’s U.S. locations, and have not been as common in Canada.
"Atkins and low-carb certainly has been a hit down there," he says. But Bibby is not yet convinced that these diets are more than a fad. "I’m still skeptical," he says.
SIR Corp.’s restaurants are dealing with the trend by offering substitutions and responding to special requests, and will react with menu items if necessary. The deciding factor for future menu changes, Bibby says, will be pressure from guests, although he doesn’t think introducing low-carb menu items needs to expensive or difficult to implement.
Bibby says SIR Corp.’s servers have been made aware of appropriate substitutions for carb-conscious customers – caesar salad without croutons, wings cooked without being dipped in flour, and sandwiches or burgers served as plates, rather than on bread.
Jim Albanese, president of Albanese Branding and Communications Inc., says that for restaurants with limited resources, menu changes can be risky.
"If it means adding new products, that means adding new inventory, more expensive back-of-the-house training, all those things," he says. "I find that restaurants that jump on the fads and change their menus just for the sake of trying to capitalize on a current trend end up spending more money at times than they should."
He adds that adapting many menu items for special orders can be fairly simple. Other smaller-scale changes are also recommended.
"They might best handle it with a menu insert, or try features to see what their customers want, and then adopt it as a hard menu item," Albanese says. Testing the waters, and showing some flexibility with substitutions – such as offering a side salad instead of potatoes, or serving grilled fish or chicken on a bed of greens instead of a bed of rice – is a lower-cost, lower-risk approach.
"Restaurateurs have to be careful not to jump in too deep, too fast because they could hurt their business," he says, adding that the menu is the most important company brochure that a restaurant has to offer. "What would be the point of changing a menu wholesale and then having to have five specials a day just to put back on items that the customers really want to buy?"
Albanese recommends that restaurateurs survey their customer base.
"I wouldn’t make wholesale changes to a menu, I would test it first," he says. "I think a lot of the good operators are already doing that."
The food service industry is trying to gauge whether low-carb dieting is a passing fad or a larger trend.
"That’s the $64,000 question," says Paul Hetherington, president and CEO of the Bakery Association of Canada. "It’s a situation we’re monitoring very closely and trying to ascertain if and when it might have an effect on the Canadian marketplace." The U.S. market has seen a six per cent decline in per capita flour consumption since 1997, but Hetherington says the Canadian bakery industry has not yet been affected.
Creating low-carb baked goods is not a simple solution, he says. Costs of reformulation include research and development expenses and any structural or machinery changes at the production plant, plus there are also regulatory issues involved. Specific criteria must be met to label a consumer product "low-carb" or "reduced carbohydrate" in Canada.
"Those (criteria) disappear at the end of 2005 when we have our new mandatory nutrition labelling regulation come into effect," Hetherington says, so any consumer product making a low-carb or reduced-carb claim would have to give up the claim come 2006.
Carb counts aren’t the only criteria that are regulated. In Canada, bread is a standardized food product.
"There are rules in the Food and Drug Act about what bread must contain to be called bread," Hetherington says. "I think it presents a significant challenge for anyone looking at meeting one of the claims, to do so and still meet the standard of identity to call your product a bread." Such a product could, of course, be marketed as a "loaf" instead. But, most importantly, it has to taste good or customers won’t buy it.
Tasting good may be a carbohydrate’s best defence. After all, low-fat diets have been around for decades, yet Bibby says 60 per cent of SIR Corp. guests still order french fries. ¨