Who’s Counting Calories? What the Law about Calories on Menus Means for Your Restaurant

Restaurant Industry Trends

The calorie information of our favorite combos is coming to menus across America—for real this time. Is your restaurant ready?

As of May 5, 2017, chain restaurants are required to put calorie information on their menus per the FDA’s final guidance on the matter. Before you panic, this law only applies to restaurants and food-service businesses with 20 or more locations using the same name and roughly the same menu. Does your business fall into that category? Either way, let’s look at what this means for you.

In addition to the requirement of posting calorie information for menu items, restaurants who fall under this ruling are also required to display a statement about daily calorie intake and nutritional information is based on 2,000 calories per day. This daily recommendation may vary for individuals.

For menu boards targeted at children, restaurants can display lower calorie intake guidelines in place of the 2,000 calories per day guideline. This can get tricky as caloric needs, and nutritional values can vary greatly by the age of the child or adult consumer, causing confusing menu boards. It is imperative that all menus display which daily caloric input was used to calculate nutritional values.

Scenario A: Your Chain May Meet the Criteria

You might be wondering—what if the chain is a franchise, and you own only one or two of the locations? Sorry, but that won’t get you an exemption. All 20+ locations will have to provide the number of calories contained in standard menu items—including self-service items and alcoholic beverages—as well as written nutritional information upon request. You’re off the hook if the menu item is a daily special, temporary item, or custom order, however. For more details, see the complete rules posted by the FDA.

Under these new guidelines, restaurants and foodservice businesses that are governed by the federal level will not be subject to state and local laws for nutritional information displays.

Still, have questions? Consider registering to attend one of the FDA’s public workshops, during which you can request a one-on-one session if desired.

Scenario B: You Have a Single Restaurant, Small Chain, or Food Truck

Bottom line, you don’t have to comply with the new requirements. That is unless you want to. The FDA allows you to voluntarily register your business to be subject to the new law.* One reason for doing so? If your restaurant is in a city or state that has its own menu-labeling laws, such as New York City, Seattle, or Vermont, you would not have to follow those local regulations unless they are identical to the federal rules.

Another motivation might be that you believe posting calorie information could boost your business. Yes, you read that right…and it’s not the craziest idea, if you look at the research.

*Keep in mind that the FDA registration period lasts for two years, and noncompliance can result in penalties, even for those who voluntarily sign up. 

Check out more tips for your food truck to stay up-to-date with current regulations.

Do customers really want to know the calories?

Popular belief says no, but research says differently. A 2014 study conducted by Penn State and the University of Tennessee found that customers are more likely to eat at restaurants that provide nutrition facts and healthy food. Also, they are significantly more likely to view the restaurant as socially conscious when presented with a menu that lists nutrition details like calories, saturated fat, and carbohydrates. That was true even when the individuals admitted they were not very health-conscious.

“In other words, the participants developed a favorable attitude toward the restaurant and wanted to visit it more frequently,” said David Cranage, associate professor of hospitality management at Penn State.

Even when consumers aren’t paying attention to what the nutritional value of your menu items are, they notice that you provide the information and appreciate the transparency. Building a better image and providing positive branding are the great side-effects of opting in to show calorie information, whether you are not mandated to do so or not.

No Pain—and Maybe Some Gain—for Your Bottom Line

Here’s another common assumption. Many in the restaurant industry believe that mandatory menu labeling will harm sales because people will see how certain unhealthy items are and walk out the door. Yet early studies have found no negative effect on restaurants’ bottom lines.

For example, Starbucks commissioned a Stanford University study that looked at how menu labeling had affected sales at their 222 New York City locations. The researchers found that calories per transaction decreased slightly (by 6% on average), but profits stayed the same. The only exception occurred in locations near their competitor Dunkin’ Donuts, which did not display calorie counts. For those locations, revenue went up. That led the researchers to conclude that menu labeling drove consumers to choose Starbucks over Dunkin’ Donuts.

Should you take part in the “calorie transparency” movement?

Based on their findings, Starbucks expanded menu labeling in 2013 to more than 10,000 locations across the United States. Today, other major chains like Panera, Chick-fil-A, Jamba Juice, and McDonald’s have also leaped ahead of the FDA deadline. And let’s not forget the real pioneer, Subway, whose early foray into providing nutrition facts nearly 20 years ago helped propel it to become Harris Poll’s top sandwich shop brand this year, as well as the past five years running.

Are you thinking about joining the calorie counters? Even if you don’t meet the criteria or voluntarily register with the FDA, you can still experiment with providing calorie information for some or all of your menu items, as a potential competitive advantage. It could be a win-win for the health of your business and your customers.

Changes to Menu Items due to Displaying Information

One good thing for the general public is that many restaurants are making changes to their menus to reduce calories and provide healthier menu options. We had seen a 12% decline each year with new menu items across restaurants since 2008 when New York began mandating calorie information be displayed on menus per research by Harvard University’s Sara Bleich.

With this steady decline in calories for new menu items, and changes made to current menu items each year, consumers are on their way to healthier options without making a conscious decision to eat healthier. Restaurants are competing to show a healthier display across their menus while maintaining the same tastes their customers love. 

Easily Display Caloric Information on a Digital Menu

If you run a fast-food chain or other restaurants with a digital menu display, providing caloric information and other nutritional values is made easy. Input information for each item, and let programming and AI technology take care of displaying the information for combination meals nutritional values.

Using a digital menu display will also give patrons a chance to choose different sides for their combo meals, and give them the information separately for each option. In some cases, the FDA requires that calorie information is displayed in a range, i.e. (200-400) when there are more than three options for one meal available on the menu.

The final rule by the FDA determined that if nutritional information is displayed in a digital format and offered the digital information to the customer, a paper print out or other forms of the information displays are no longer required. This digitization of information allows for transparency in nutritional information while being easier to update for new menu items or changes in ingredients. 

Read more on menus and keeping them fresh and updated, and on healthy choices on menus.

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