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Healthy Food? It's All in the Messaging

Healthy Food? It's All in the Messaging

You stepped up your menu, now it’s time to get creative in showcasing those healthier items

With all the messages about eating healthy, losing weight and staying (or getting) in shape being thrown at people all the time, it's no surprise savvy diners would want the same when going out to eat. The big secret in dining out, however, is that it's not always as good for you as you might think. Delicious and beautifully presented? Of course. Always healthy? Not so much.

More people are starting to ask servers and chefs what exactly goes into a dish, how it's prepared and where ingredients are sourced. So it's more important than ever to show your customers you understand their needs and show them the healthy items on your menu. There was a time you could slap "low cal" or "low carb" next to dish or use a symbol of a green leaf or a heart to showcase vegetarian or heart-healthy items. These days, people want, and need, more.

"It's critical to know what's being put in your food behind the scenes," said Downing Barber, owner and CEO of Athens, Ga.-based Barberitos Southwestern Grille & Cantina. "Our food is in front of the customers. Rice is rice. We make our own black beans fresh. We've been practicing this for a long time. People come to eat here because they love the food. We never had to tell them it was natural."

The point: You need to show your customers how healthy and fresh your food is. Just putting up a sign that says "All natural!" is merely a sign — and often not a truthful one. Barberitos, which currently has 48 restaurants throughout the Southeast, is like other, healthier, fast-casual places like Freshii or Chipotle that put their fresh ingredients on display. But Barberitos also uses terms like "farm-fresh" and "made-in-house daily" to tell customers that what they're eating is not processed, from a can or merely frozen after being made at a central location. Their "Healthy Initiative" menu items show calorie count and fat content and the website offers a list of allergens like soy, eggs and peanuts, and also offers an interactive nutrition calculator so you can add up the fat, cholesterol, protein, sodium and more in every dish on their menu.

Actually having natural ingredients, however, does go a long way regardless if you have big signs saying so. Colorado's Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custards has 38 stores throughout the state (with one in Wyoming). When it opened in 1987, it was more of a typical quick-service burger joint, but 13 years ago the company realized it needed to step up its game to differentiate itself from other fast food spots.

"We looked at the landscape of what people wanted and going all natural was a stand out," said Amy Nedwell, Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custards marketing director. "It made us different from our competitors." This means having ingredients like beef from local Meyer Natural Angus, humanely raised Springer Mountain Farms chicken, all-natural bacon from Good Nature and frozen custard made from all-natural milk, cream, eggs and Madagascar vanilla. All this information is listed on point-of-purchase signage, and on the company website and promoted via Facebook with cheeky ads that say things like, "Drug-Free Beef (at least something is drug-free here in Colorado.)"

"We like to push the envelope a bit. We promote all-natural qualities like no antibiotics, no added hormones, humanely raised," Nedwell said. "A mom can feel better about coming here and getting hand-breaded chicken that's all natural."

Sure you can promote all-natural ingredients, but you can still get even more creative. Mason's, a Southern-focused spot with European and Appalachian influences inside Nashville's Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, did just that. The restaurant, which opened in 2013, teamed with local celebrity trainer Erin Oprea, who works with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Nettles and Lee Ann Womack, to create healthy menu items for hotel guests as well as local clientele.

Mason's servers discuss the options with each table and point out how they can "eat clean," with the idea of food being fresh and flavorful. They also point out two thoughtful options, marked with a dumbbell, on each of the breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner menus. These are the specific dishes envisioned by Oprea and Mason's kitchen staff. Guests know by this simple symbol that they're getting a healthy, thought-out dish like grilled halibut with shaved zucchini and snap peas; a Persian breakfast frittata with shaved asparagus, chickpea smash and dried cherries; or a Mandarin Smash, a cocktail with Absolut Mandarin vodka, lemon juice, agave nectar, orange bitters and fresh orange.

"People are pleasantly surprised. They don't expect restaurants to be mindful of their health," said Nanci Milam, Mason's general manager. "People want a more comprehensive healthy dish. It's not just "low cal" or "low carb." It's looking at the entire dish — sugar, salt, fat — all in balance."

So no matter how you showcase your healthier items, get more creative with it. If you need to change ingredients, you may spend more, but people will be happier and you'll attract more diners in the long run.

"If that's what you believe in," Good Times' Nedwell said, "customers will respond to that." Now that's truth in messaging.

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