By Ellen W. Hartman
Restaurant operators today are continually seeking balance. As an industry, we want to give our guests a quality, great-tasting product – at a great value. We want to provide an enriching experience – with an eye on the bottom line. We want to create an experience that offers escape – and follows the rules.
Historically, healthy menus were tough to fit into this balance. A chef or operator understood the need for balanced meals, but customers wanted something different. They wanted an indulgence, not something with a “healthy” label, which was associated with “not flavorful” and “not tasting good.”
Times are changing, and they are changing for the better. Today, due to champions in the top levels of government, industry groups such as the NRA and, most importantly, demand from consumers, healthy is hot. Restaurant operators that meet the newly found appetite for nutritious meals will gain loyal customers and establish their brands as industry leaders at the front of change.
But where to begin? Focus on sustainable products? Low calorie? Low fat? Locally sourced? One option is to start with the kids. Childhood obesity has become a rallying cry at the highest levels of government – we’ve all heard of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation.
Big players in the industry are on board, too. In 2011, McDonald’s rolled out a new kid’s meal with apple slices included, and Darden Restaurants now offers fruits and vegetables as the default sides on its kids’ menu, with 1-percent milk as the default beverage.
Most importantly, healthy eating for kids is now becoming a big concern for consumers. In the NRA’s annual survey of members of the American Culinary Federation, “healthful kids’ meals” was among the top five menu trends this year. Also in the top five was “children’s nutrition as a culinary theme.”
Smaller operators may be wondering what they can do to engage. With tight margins and, potentially, low demand for kid’s meals, fruits and veggies are often out of budgetary reach. In response to this concern, NRA rolled out Kids LiveWell in 2011, in partnership with San Diego-based consultant Healthy Dining. The program, part marketing and part nutrition, is an effort to help operators identify and validate kid’s menu choices that meet 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines.
Fresh to Order (f2o) is a perfect example of a smaller operator making large strides towards kids’ health. The Atlanta-based “fine-fast” chain, with nine locations in Georgia and Tennessee, is a featured member of Kids LiveWell, and its many fresh and health options are also featured on Healthy Dining’s restaurant finder for adults. Fresh to Order Chief Operating Officer and Corporate Chef Jesse Gideon designs the chains kid’s menu to be fun, nutritious and affordable – the perfect recipe for both meeting the demands of health-conscious consumers and driving sales consistency.
Gideon’s reward is loyal customers. His concept already had a great appeal among women, but the Kids LiveWell designation has expanded his reach. Now his loyal female customers see f2o both a place to meet friends or business associates AND a great place for their kids. Dads are also a big part of Gideon’s customer base. The chain offers a fresh and healthy, no-cook weekend dinner that Gideon’s dad customers know is good for their kids.
It doesn’t have to be hard. “Healthy Dining was indeed great to work with,” Gideon says. “They took all the hard work out the equation by giving me access to a team of amazing registered dieticians. They helped me to identify items currently on our menu that meet Kids LiveWell criteria; the overall process was a joy to be a part of.”
For operators interested in joining the cause, Kids LiveWell offers a turn-key method for verifying and promoting qualified menu items, including valuable assistance from Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians. Once the process is complete, Kids LiveWell is a brand champion, highlighting participants on their website, mobile app, at conferences and to the millions of parents interested in making the best choices for their families.
So Kids LiveWell is easy on operators – and it’s a marketer’s dream. As a public relations professional serving the restaurant industry, I highly recommend the program as a great way to build brand recognition and loyalty.
At a broad level, Kids LiveWell members are included among a growing group of industry leaders working on a solution to an obesity epidemic facing our country – a stance much appreciated by many potential customers and thought leaders throughout the nation. More importantly many restaurants, such as f2o, have found that a healthy kids program increases customer visits and builds loyalty. Kids LiveWell has a broad marketing reach that expands brand awareness of your restaurant to customers looking for healthy options for their kids. Moreover, when your current customers know that you care about their health and the health of their families, they are more likely to become loyal customers that come back time and time again.
For more information on joining the Kids LiveWell program, please contact Joy Dubost at the National Restaurant Association at 202-973-5361 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also access information on designing choices on your menu at www.cokesolutions.com or www.honesttea.com/kids/
Take the First Bite
Want to make the most of a partnership with Kids LiveWell? Take these easy steps:
1. Form a true partnership. Brand leaders should get to know the NRA/Kids LiveWell team. A personal relationship allows even more opportunities for long-term success of the program and your brand.
2. Announce your partnership. Parents will choose brands that make their child’s health a priority. Spread the word about your brand’s smart choice through a press release or media campaign.
3. Tell local influencers. Local media, food, restaurant and ‘mommy’ bloggers care deeply about what local restaurants are doing to improve health. Let your local media know about what you’re doing.
4. Be a spokesperson. Offer your brand’s chef or food and beverage/research and development leaders to comment on the program or nutritious options for kids.
5. Stay active. You are constantly improving your regular menu – keep your kid’s menu top of mind, too, in order to keep it healthy.
Ellen Hartman is president and CEO of Hartman Public Relations, LLC, a full- service public relations agency specializing in the foodservice industry. Hartman and her team have experience working for full service brands such as Chili’s, Huddle House and Olive Garden, fast casual brands such as Cosi, and many QSR brands including Popeyes, Church’s, and Arby’s. An industry leader for more than 20 years, Hartman is a frequent speaker at industry events, is active in the Women’s Foodservice Forum and Les Dames d’Escoffier International and has served on the board of the Multi-Cultural Foodservice Hospitality Alliance.