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Fri 19th Jul 2013 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: US healthy eating strategies, the Italian segment strikes back and live sport as a traffic driver
Authors: Kevin Higar, Ann Elliott and David Rey

US healthy eating strategies by Kevin Higar

In just a few short weeks my wife and I will be celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary. Knowing that, I’m sure most of you can appreciate how subtly excited I was when Carol announced she was going to visit her parents for the weekend. From my perspective, that meant two whole days as sole ruler of my kingdom. On night one of my re-emerging bachelorhood I decided to write this column. Not exactly sure which US foodservice trend to spotlight, I sat down at the kitchen table with a bowl of soup and a few scoops of ice cream and began to brainstorm. About the time the last bite of vanilla chocolate chunk disappeared, I realised I probably should be experiencing some sort of health guilt – but really wasn’t. That got me thinking about just how much consumer expectations regarding healthy foods at restaurants has changed over the past decade.

Today, when consumers are asked what nutritional plan they tend to follow, the top response is typically “My Plan”. That’s right. After all is said and done, the easiest, most sensible plan most folks want to follow is one developed by them. One of the most appealing aspects of this type of program is it allows each individual to create a nutritional balance definition that best fits their particular lifestyle (much like my healthy vegetable soup combined with a decadent ice cream chaser).

In response to this evolving mindset, successful US restaurant operators have developed three distinct menu strategies. Whether or not a specific concept incorporates one or more depends on their targeted customers’ quality of life demands.

Strategy 1: Nutrition By The “Barely Noticed” Numbers – Restaurants are developing menu items addressing specific nutritional metrics such as calories, fats, or carbohydrates. While this isn’t new, Seasons 52, an upscale casual dining concept based in Orlando, Florida, focuses the narrative not on what is missing (no dish has more than 475 calories) but what is being received (unbelievable taste). If you talk to devoted guests, they tend to focus on the wood-fire grilling and brick oven cooking used to create dishes like steak and cremini mushroom flatbread or caramelised sea scallops. This is what the concept emphasises and what the guests remember. Taste truly trumps all.

Strategy 2: Offering Dietary Restriction Solutions While Avoiding The Group Veto Vote – In some cases, consumers have specific allergies or other nutritional requirements. Historically, many restaurants feared being labeled as catering to these demands. If the food was healthy, then it must not taste good. While that specific customer may visit, others who did not share these dining requirements would often veto a visit based on healthy item taste stereotypes. Today, many concepts (especially in the popular fast casual segment) are positioning themselves as a place where the food is spectacular and also happens to be vegan or gluten-free. Ruggles Green, a fast casual concept located in the Houston, Texas area serves over 35 gluten-free options and a number of vegetarian options. In case you’re wondering about taste perceptions, a quick scan of the restaurant review site Yelp elicits multiple praise for the concept – such as “who doesn’t love good, fresh, quality foods and ingredients”. That certainly doesn’t sound like a “better for you” positioned concept alienating part of its potential customer base, does it? My guess is that offering gluten-free dishes such as quinoa mac and cheese, baby shrimp tacos, and crème brulee doesn’t hurt either.

Strategy 3: “Better For You” Halo Ingredients – Consumers want menu items with ingredients that make them feel good and provide energy for their busy days. This has translated to a desire for common sense ingredients with a healthy halo like grains, fruits and vegetables. Each year, the National Restaurant Association interviews a large number of chefs regarding various culinary items they feel will be hot in the coming year. For 2013, the second “hottest” trend is predicted to be locally grown produce – 81% of chefs think it will be a hot trend. Cowboy Chicken is a popular Dallas, Texas-based fast casual brand specialising in real wood-fired rotisserie chicken. This summer they will once again be offering fresh cut watermelon. Light, tasty, and hydrating in nature, it represents a simple, unique, differentiating side item offering consumers the energy to go out and accomplish whatever is on their hectic to-do lists.

Regardless of which strategy or strategies concepts decide to offer, there is one standard that must absolutely be met. When consumers are asked to rate specific food item characteristics that have the greatest impact on their decision to purchase, taste repeatedly beats out other elements such as price and healthfulness. So while having healthy on the menu is important, today’s consumer will not sacrifice on taste. Winning restaurants in the US marketplace never forget that.
Kevin Higar is author of “Always Let The Chicken Lead”, an insightful, light-hearted book that identifies and examines the seven key attributes all successful restaurants embrace. It is available for purchase at He can be reached at

The Italians strike back By Ann Elliott

We always try, as a team, to get out about to see new (and old) concepts on a regular basis – last week it was Shake Shack and Five Guys that drew our attention – this week it’s been Italian. Our account manager, James, recently visited Jamie’s Italian Trattoria (see his thoughts below) and loved it so much that it got me thinking about how the Italian restaurant market place is fighting its way back into the hearts and minds of customers.

Very appropriately then I heard ASK’s CEO, Steve Holmes, speak at this week’s Arena Lunch on the journey to restore the brand to ‘I really love it’ status. ASK had become a brand that had slipped out of people’s hearts – whenever he mentioned that he worked for them, people would say: “Oh ASK? I used to go there once upon a time.”

It wasn’t that ASK had done anything wrong – it simply hadn’t evolved at the same pace as customer’s expectations. The food was never awful, the service was always okay and the environment was decent enough, but this wasn’t strong enough to keep hold of existing users and capture new ones. The lesson learnt? Being OK just wasn’t good enough. Customers who came once a month started to visit once every other month, then once or twice a year. It’s an all too familiar pattern with long established restaurant brands.

How did Steve combat this indifference? Well he started with the menu. He made the move (and I know this sounds obvious) to serve outstandingly good Italian food that was authentic. For instance, the spaghetti Bolognaise we all enjoy here in the UK isn’t really served like that in Italy. It’s Fettuccine Bolognaise. Steve and his team spent week after week in Italy, picking up trends and adjusting the menu accordingly. ASK sources its olive oil straight from farms in Italy, making sure it’s the right green colour of freshly pressed olives. ASK chefs cook from scratch now – they don’t buy in bog standard sauces but develop their own sauces to their own recipes.

Theo Randall has been instrumental in these changes and hasn’t just put his name on the menu in return for a fat fee – he visits every ASK site to ensure that the menu is working, he teaches the kitchen teams himself, and develops and approves every single menu item. It shows.

Opened in Richmond earlier this month ‘Jamie’s Italian Trattoria’ is aimed more at the family market in locations which may not have the high level of footfall needed to fill a Jamie’s Italian

As you would expect from a Jamie Oliver restaurant, the inside is somewhat branded, with Jamie’s logo everywhere from on the menus, to the napkins and even to the inside of the toilets.

On the first round of tapas we had dishes of Pecorino with chilli jam, wild mushroom arancini with a spicy tomato sauce and a deliciously fresh salad of shaved courgettes, ricotta, lemon and mint.

The choice of starters or antipasti was great with something for everyone, but the main course selection lacked imagination. The freshly baked rosemary focaccia had a delicious spongy texture and the cured meat board, crispy squid and buffalo mozzarella salad were all perfectly tasty. Missing mains, we opted for the almond and peach tart which was delicious – moist, sweet and served with a dollop of crème fraiche.

It is easy to see this concept rolled out to towns and cities up and down the country – it pleases everyone. You can quite literally pop in at any time of the day and there is something there for you.

ASK or Trattoria – both brilliant and worth a visit
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliott Marketing & PR –

Live sport remains a key footfall driver by David Rey

It’s no secret that the trading environment remains tough for publicans, which is why Sky has not increased prices to licensees since September 2010.

As pubs look to continually innovate and develop their businesses, live sport on TV remains a significant draw with millions regularly watching live sport on TV in a pub or bar. Whilst football has long led the charge in drawing crowds into pubs, there’s plenty of evidence to show how licensees are also using other sports to drive their businesses. 

International rugby pulls in the crowds, whether it’s the QBE Autumn Internationals, Heineken Cup or the recent British and Irish Lions series. The Lions alone attracted 898,000 out-of-home (OOH) Sky viewers for the First Test, with one customer telling us they took in £3,000 of additional revenue before the first game started. Meanwhile, the Leinster vs. Scarlets Heineken Cup game drew in 475,000 OOH viewers on Sky Sports. No.1 Sports Bar in London took full advantage of the Heineken Cup last season by using Sky’s PreviewLIVE to design their own posters advertising upcoming games and used additional viewing cards to screen different games simultaneously.

Sky launched a dedicated F1 channel last year, offering all races, qualifying and practice sessions live until 2018. The average number of OOH viewers of Formula One on Sky Sports is 410,000, which uplifted to 697,000 OOH viewers for the Monaco Grand Prix in May. Apres Bar in Birmingham has been exploring the potential of F1 in their venue, using the F1 channel to attract a brand new crowd that have possibly never visited them before. To support, they are running food and drink offers all day during Sunday races, including two full English breakfasts for £10.

The India vs. England 1st One Day International Cricket game attracted 454,000 OOH viewers on Sky and we are of course now into the start of back-to-back Investec Ashes. Tom Clarke, chairman at Harold Wood Cricket Club in Essex, has been bringing the Ashes to life for his customers with Ashes breakfasts and BBQs, drinks offers, daily competitions on the amount of runs scored that day and bowl-outs in the nets – all supported through activity on Facebook and Twitter, as well as advertising in local press.

Whilst we keep investing on screen, we also keep investing in tools for our customers to maximise the value of live sport for their business. Our upcoming free interactive app for Sky Sports venues will help to drive footfall ahead of the football season and encourage people to stay longer after matches. Additionally, our partnership with CPL Training Group will provide licensees with access to free online sports-knowledge training and advice on how to make the most out of live sport in their venues. Further on-going support also remains available on Sky’s free online portal, PreviewLIVE, through tips, advice and ideas on how to market and make the most out of live sporting events in licenced venues.

Sky shows nearly 10,000 hours of live sports (plus an additional 6,000 hours of Sky Sports news) across wide-ranging content including football, back-to-back Investec Ashes, the Heineken Cup, international rugby, Formula One, darts and racing from At the Races. We believe that with our nation’s breadth and quality of live sports, there are lots of opportunities to drive incremental turnover as we all gear up for a strong start to the football season.
David Rey is managing director for Sky Business, which supplies Sky services to more than 40,000 commercial customers. Visit for tips on how to make the most of live sport in your venue

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