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Restaurant Chains Serving More Lower-Calorie Choices Do Better Financially

Chains see improved sales, traffic and total servings when they serve more lower-calorie items

WASHINGTON, Feb. 7, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Restaurant chains that serve more lower-calorie foods and beverages have better business performance, according to a study released today by Hudson Institute. Over five years, chains that increased the amount of lower-calorie options they served had better sales growth, larger increases in customer traffic, and stronger gains in total food and beverage servings than chains whose servings of lower-calorie options declined. The authors of the report believe it is the first to determine the financial impact of lower-calorie foods and beverages on the U.S. restaurant industry.

The report, Lower-Calorie Foods: It's Just Good Business, analyzed 21 of the nation's largest restaurant chains, including quick-service chains such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, and Taco Bell, and sit-down chains such as Applebee's, Olive Garden, Chili's, and Outback Steakhouse. Together these 21 chains have $102 billion in annual U.S. sales and 49 percent of the revenue of the top 100 restaurant chains.

"Consumers are hungry for restaurant meals that won't expand their waist lines, and the chains that recognize this are doing better than those that don't," said Hank Cardello, lead author of the report, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, and Director of the Institute's Obesity Solutions Initiative. Cardello is a former executive with Coca-Cola, General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, and Cadbury-Schweppes.

The report found that, between 2006 and 2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages were the growth engine for the restaurants studied. In 17 of the 21 restaurant chains evaluated, lower-calorie foods and beverages outperformed those that were not lower-calorie. In addition, chains that increased their servings of lower-calorie items saw positive returns as a result. These chains generated:

  • a 5.5 percent increase in same-store sales, compared with a 5.5 percent decline among chains selling fewer lower-calorie servings;
  • a 10.9 percent growth in customer traffic, compared with a 14.7 percent decline; and
  • an 8.9 percent increase in total food and beverage servings, compared with a 16.3 percent decrease.

Cardello and his colleagues worked with the Nutrition Coordinating Center at the University of Minnesota to develop the calorie criteria used to assess menu items. A main course item such as a sandwich or entree was considered lower-calorie if it had no more than 500 calories. Beverages with 50 or fewer calories per eight ounces were considered lower-calorie. Side dishes, appetizers, and desserts with 150 or fewer calories also were categorized this way. Items that did not meet the criteria are referred to as traditional.

Lower-calorie servings of foods and beverages increased as a percentage of total servings across all 21 chains. Over the five-year period, the chains collectively saw an increase of roughly 472 million in total servings of lower-calorie foods and beverages, compared with a decrease of about 1.3 billion servings among traditional items.

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