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September 18, 2019Cart

Business

by Fairfield County Business Journal
by FCBJ

Can fast-food restaurants successfully offer healthier meals?

The McDonald’s at Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield. Photo by Phil Hall.

During a recent investors’ conference, Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson noted that Frappuccino sales were down 3 percent in the company’s U.S. stores since 2015. The reason, he explained, was a consumer shift away from sugary and high-calorie drinks.

“We must move faster to address the more rapidly changing preferences and needs of our customers,” Johnson said.

The company, he added, is responding to consumer demand by introducing healthier drinks such as the Mango Dragonfruit Starbucks Refresher, which carries 100 calories — considerably lower than the Frappuccinos with a caloric range between 350 and 520. But healthier is not necessarily synonymous with healthy: The Mango Dragonfruit Starbucks Refresher comes with 19 grams of sugar, which is lower than the 65 grams floating in the average Frappucino cup, but still on the high side.

Starbucks is the latest chain to promote itself as offering healthier choices in food and drinks. And while Starbucks has hit a bump in the road — the company is planning to shutter 150 of its underperforming stores next year — there is little evidence that the overall fast-food world is showing signs of tumult. Indeed, new data from Transparency Market Research has forecasted the global industry will be worth $617.6 billion by the end of 2019, a 4.40 percent compound annual growth rate increase from the $477.1 billion level set in 2013.

“Quick service restaurants have been unique to the American experience starting in the 1950s,” said J. Thomas Failla, director of hospitality management and culinary arts at Norwalk Community College. “The fast pace of our society lends itself to this type of establishment, along with the franchising opportunities that it offers.”

It also seems that a faster life pace would ensure that rapid food service will have a solid audience.

“People don’t have time to go out for lunch,” said Mia Schipani, principal at Schipani PR in Stamford. “And the need for healthy food on the fly is huge.”

This is not a brand-new trend. Over the past several years, a number of fast- food chains have introduced salads, grilled chicken and other menu choices, and some chains have promoted ingredient changes in food preparation. But can fast-food eateries benefit from having a more diverse blend of selections promoted as being healthier for consumers?

“Yes, absolutely,” said Sharon Arena, owner and creative director of Salty Red Dog Marketing LLC in Norwalk. “People want choices. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian options.”

Constantine Kalandranis, the owner of two Westchester restaurants and president of Kalandranis Consulting, a food trade consultancy based in Harrison, believed that the fast-food eateries have no choice.

“It’s a matter of survival for the fast-food restaurants,” he said. “People eat out more and restaurants are becoming their homes. This is part of the evolution of food and the way people are dining. We’ve seen more high-end franchises over the last five years that have better ingredients and contracts with farms.”

Nikki Wingate, assistant professor and department chair of marketing at the University of Bridgeport’s Ernest C. Trefz School of Business, said the fast-food outlets have their work cut out for them.

“Research suggests that changing the brand’s core image or core benefits will be difficult but not impossible,” she said. “By emphasizing ‘convenience’ and ‘speed’ as their primary brand benefits, instead of ‘greasy food’ as their core benefit when they offer healthy food options, fast-food eateries may be able to mitigate the formerly inevitable associations of unhealthy offerings. This will be possible only if those healthy food options are reliable in execution each and every time. For example, if you see brown edges of lettuce in the salad once, you would never order it again.”

Wingate predicted that customers who would never consider frequenting a McDonald’s or a KFC might be willing to venture to these locations if they are convinced by “authentic word of mouth reviews.” Yet Wingate added that sometimes these efforts have counterproductive results, at least for the health-conscious foodie.

“Interestingly, research has shown that even if these consumers are lured into fast-food restaurants by healthy options, they surprisingly end up choosing unhealthy options — fries, for example — to eat during their actual visit,” she said.

And not everyone wants to be convinced. Katie Diehl, owner of Norwalk-based Diehl Nutrition, has a simple answer when her clients ask her about fast-food restaurants.

“I tell them not to eat there,” she said. “I preach about the quality of food — be aware, to the best of your ability, where your food is coming from. More and more people are very aware of the quality of food and the types of food available today.”

Diehl added that the fast-food industry is, ultimately, not putting healthier items on their menu out of concerns for the customers’ wellness.

“When you think of McDonald’s, you don’t think health,” she said. “The fast-food restaurants are in it for the money — it’s a very lucrative business.”