Restaurants have always been hubs for indulgence, but nationwide, they’re also feeling the pressure to offer healthier options for adults and children. According to the National Restaurant Association, natural ingredients, clean foods and legitimately healthy kids’ menus are among the hottest trends for 2017, sparking a growing number of restaurants to ponder how to capture health-conscious diners while also staying true to their brands.
Rather than go it alone, some establishments—including slightly more than two dozen in East Baton Rouge Parish—are opting to earn seals-of-approval by third parties that signal a commitment to health and wellness, and point consumers to menu items that include less saturated fat, sodium and sugar.
In early March, the Louisiana Restaurant Association and the Department of Health’s Well-Ahead Louisiana program announced a partnership to encourage restaurants to become “WellSpots,” a designation earned by offering a certain number of healthy options on menus, going smoke free and having staff trained to offer healthy menu options, among other benchmarks.
Also involved in the project is Ochsner Health System’s nonprofit Eat Fit program, which is connecting its registered dietitians with restaurants interested in analyzing and improving the nutritional content of menu items. The service is offered at no charge to participating restaurants, says Ochsner Eat Fit founder and registered dietitian Molly Kimball.
Both programs are slowly gaining traction in the state. So far, about 70 restaurants statewide have become designated WellSpots, including about 25 in East Baton Rouge Parish. Mestizo Louisiana Mexican Restaurant is one of them.
“I really want to build a footprint in clean-eating,” says Mestizo chef and owner Jim Urdiales. “I’m going to use this extensively to build traction with new customers and continue to make adjustments to menu items that can be made healthier.”
Urdiales spent the last few years adding nutrient-dense and vegetable-centric menu options to appeal to diners wary of the cheese-laden dishes that define most Mexican eateries. Urdiales believes that including a solid list of healthy dishes is an effective way to stand out in a crowded field. He is also working with Eat Fit to obtain a nutritional analysis of about a dozen of his menu items, which he’ll be able to share with customers later this year.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
Nationwide, consumers are eating out more than ever, spending more last year on eating and drinking out than they did at grocery stores, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Busy families and millennials are relying on restaurants not just for dining out, but for take-away meals to eat at home. Restaurants across Louisiana expect to see $8.9 billion in sales by the end of 2017, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
With that kind of stake, restaurants could have a lot of sway in influencing the choices diners make, says Melissa Martin, Well-Ahead spokesperson and director of the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
“Restaurants have an amazing opportunity to help make Louisiana dishes healthier,” says Martin. “The restaurant community has a strong desire to encourage healthy living through better eating.”
Martin is quick to point out that it’s not just salad eateries or health food stores earning the WellSpot designation, although the Salad Shop, Fresh Junkie and Whole Foods are among those that have done so. For example, Commander’s Palace, part of the old guard of Crescent City eateries, has achieved WellSpot designation.
“Having testimonials and being able to show a restaurant like Commander’s is committed to this goes a long way in convincing other restaurants,” says Martin. “We want to help them understand that it’s only going to help, not hurt, them.”
“Restaurants have an amazing opportunity to help make Louisiana dishes healthier. The restaurant community has a strong desire to encourage healthy living through better eating.” —Melissa Martin, Well-Ahead spokesperson and director of the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (photography by Brian Baiamonte).
There are three levels of WellSpot designation. Restaurants that earn at least one will be included on the Well-Ahead website and promoted through Well-Ahead’s social media, earned media and paid advertising, says Martin.
“We want to see consumers use our website and social media as a way to help make good consumer choices,” Martin says. “They can search the website by ZIP code.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Martin acknowledges that while some restaurants may be hesitant to change their menu items, opting in is an investment in cultivating a positive image.
Louisiana has held the nation’s highest overweight and obesity rates for several years running. The current obesity rate is 36.2% of the adult population. Moreover, the number of individuals with diabetes has risen to 13.9% of adults 18 and older. The disease costs the state $5.4 billion annually, according to the American Diabetes Association.
“With these kinds of public health issues, sometimes you just do it because you know it’s the right thing to do,” Martin says. “Health is really everyone’s business, and it can and should have a place in all sorts of different policies.”
The next step for the Well-Ahead program is for the staff to recruit restaurants and encourage them to participate. Similarly, Eat Fit representatives are actively recruiting restaurants to help them earn their designation, says Kimball, adding restaurants are realizing that diners with healthy preferences can be powerful influencers in selecting where to eat.
“I’ve heard one chef say he’s going for that ‘fourth diner,’ the person at the table who is looking for something healthy, and who often is the one choosing where to go,” she says. “If you have something for that person, you get the whole group.”
Kimball says that Eat Fit’s intention is not to remove menu items or change top sellers. Rather, the program offers to target dishes that can be easily tweaked.
“A lot of times, a restaurant already has options aimed at diners who want to eat healthy,” she says. “But frequently, those dishes aren’t as healthy as they think. We want to help get them the rest of the way there.”