February 13, 2018

Calorie counts: Do your customers want them? And are they practical?

Calorie counting is a popular choice for people who want to control portion size, lose weight and generally improve their health. The desire to understand the caloric density of a restaurant meal is definitely understandable. Some menu choices may be unfeasible for your diet plan, some may fit in perfectly and others may require selecting smaller meals during the rest of the day or a little bit of extra time at the gym.

How can Austin culinary arts students decide if their customers will want calorie counts and if it’s practical to put them on the menu? Let’s look at how to successfully approach this issue.

Spoons with portions of basic foods.Precise portions are a common element of calorie control for health-conscious eaters.

A major regulatory change on the federal level

Although it doesn’t apply to individual restaurants or small chains, a provision of the Affordable Care Act related to chain restaurants with 20 or more locations means thousands of those restaurants will soon have to display calorie counts. Vox pointed out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will start enforcing the ACA rule in May, meaning those larger restaurant groups only have a few months to add the information if they haven’t already.

It’s worth noting that some chains already display such information. That’s for a variety of reasons, including existing state and local laws that resemble the newer federal requirements, complying with the ACA rule – which was delayed on several occasions – ahead of time and responding to customer requests for calorie counts.

With the process now standardized across the country for all restaurants above the 20-location threshold, some customers may grow accustomed to this addition and find value in it. They might want similar disclosures from the local restaurants they patronize as well. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans want nutrition information labels for restaurants, including calories and data about the presence of various nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

So, how can you respond?

Options for determining calorie counts

There are a variety of laboratories that offer calorie counting services using a variety of advanced techniques for restaurants and other parts of the foodservice industry. As Marketplace pointed out, such ventures can be expensive. One laboratory, based in Pennsylvania, has a price of $700 per sample when calculating total nutritional information and charges $150-$200 to tally a total when a restaurant shares a list of ingredients and their amounts in a given recipe.

This cost may not be feasible for all restaurants, especially those already operating on tight budgets and ones with frequent menu changes. Eateries that have a little extra room in their budgets and have relatively stable menus may decide providing calorie counts is worth it, especially if it’s something customers regularly ask about or if competitors take similar steps.

It’s worth remembering that individual restaurants and smaller chains face no requirements for calorie counts or other nutritional information. With that in mind, one possible tactic is to highlight healthier choices in a dedicated menu section and provide calorie counts for those specific dishes. This reduces costs related to determining accurate information while giving health-minded customers some useful options.

There’s no way to say which choice is best for your restaurant. If your eatery attracts a lot of diners who are interested in calorie counting or operates in an area where the practice is generally popular, it may be well worth it to invest in calorie counts from a lab. For restaurants that don’t encounter much support for this initiative, adding counts may not be practical or even beneficial. Take the temperature of your local area and regular customers to make the best decision for your needs.