Hold the Health, Serve That Burger

Signs advertise salads in the Cleveland Clinic McDonald's, where healthful foods were added.
Signs advertise salads in the Cleveland Clinic McDonald's, where healthful foods were added. (By John Kuntz -- Associated Press)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005

The national restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday added a low-fat Blueberry D'Lite yogurt parfait to its menu more than a year ago to capitalize on the apparent growing appetite among consumers for healthful fare. The parfait joined more than 40 better-for-you offerings, along with listings of calorie and fat contents for everything on the menu. French fry portions were trimmed. Heavy advertising touted the chain's Smart Eating program.

But diners didn't bite. So Ruby Tuesday has eliminated the Blueberry D'Lite, along with several other healthful dishes ditched after a lengthy period of slumping sales at the chain. Calorie and fat information was dropped except on the healthful items that survived and were moved to the back of the menu.

Now the chain is aggressively promoting its biggest burgers, and in the last three months, burger sales are up 3 to 4 percent. It has also restored its larger portions of french fries and pasta.

Like many restaurant chains in the past two years, Ruby Tuesday has discovered that while customers say they want more nutritious choices, they rarely order them. As a result, fast food and casual dining chains -- which together account for three out of four U.S. restaurant visits -- are slowly going back to what they do best: indulging Americans' taste for high-calorie, high-fat fare.

"The gap between what [diners] say and what they do is just huge," said Denny Post, chief concept officer for Burger King. "Therein lies the challenge for business, because there is simply not enough behavior shift to build a business around."

Chains are not axing the healthful offerings altogether, because they serve a small niche market. But most companies are scaling back their promotion of good-for-you products, moving them to less prominent menu locations and, in some cases, cutting back on the number of more healthful choices.

"The first Ruby Tuesday opened in 1972. In those days, the number one item people ordered when they went out was a hamburger and french fries," said Richard Johnson, the chain's senior vice president. "Today, the number one items people order when they go out are a hamburger, french fries and chicken tenders."

Food researchers say people are slowly changing their eating habits, but mostly when they eat at home. In consumer surveys conducted by market-research firm Technomic Inc. of Chicago, "a clear majority said that they're less concerned and do not follow what they believe are good dietary habits when they're eating away from home," said company president Ron Paul.

While consumers who eat in fast-food restaurants are, in fact, more interested in nutritious fare than they used to be, "it's still less important than just about anything else," said Bob Sandelman, president of consumer research firm Sandelman & Associates.

The "availability of healthy and nutritious food" ranks 10th on a list of 12 dining attributes tracked by the firm, behind other desires such as speed and order accuracy.

Dan McDonald of Fredericksburg, a 30-year-old father of two, is concerned about the 30 pounds he has gained in the past five years, and he's trying to eat better at home. He and his wife are more mindful of nutrition when they feed their children, too. But when McDonald is running around Washington as a computer systems engineer, he eats fast food four times a week on his short lunch breaks -- typically a cheeseburger, fries and a soda.

"Usually if I'm going to get fast food, I'm going to get what I want, whether they have healthy options or not on the menu," he said, sitting at a window seat of a Burger King on K Street downtown. "My problem is I need to stay out of fast food places."

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