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According to a study by research organization Hudson Institute, restaurants that offered lower-calorie items — those with fewer than 500 calories for center-of-the-plate entrees and fewer than 150 calories for side dishes — saw traffic rise 10.9 percent from 2006-2011. Sales during the same period increased 5.5 percent.

Conversely, the study found that restaurants that didn’t add lower-calorie offerings saw traffic drop 14.7 percent from 2006-2011 and same-store sales decrease 5.5 percent.

Duffy's low-calorie

“We found that those restaurant chains that were growing their lower-calorie time on the menu…demonstrate business advantages,” said Henry J. Cardello, a senior fellow and director at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute Obesity Solutions Initiative at the time of the study’s release in February. “They’re seeing their same-store sales grow. They’re seeing customer traffic increase.”

Chains are increasingly catching on to this trend. Lebanon, Tenn.-based Cracker Barrel, known for its country-style cooking and items like smoked country sausage n’ biscuits and meatloaf, has been developing a menu category called Wholesome Fixin’s, which contains items that have fewer than 500 calories during breakfast and fewer than 600 calories at lunch and dinner.

Cracker Barrel executives declined to comment on when or if Wholesome Fixin’s would be permanently added to menus at the chain’s more than 600 locations. However, during the company’s Feb. 26 second-quarter earnings call, president and chief executive Sandra B. Cochran said, “We're currently testing the category with the expectation of adding it to the menu this summer.”

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, known for its deep-fried chicken sandwich, added new salads and a wrap to its menu in April in an attempt to court health-conscious consumers. The new salads, without dressing, have between 180 and 430 calories and are available at the chain’s more than 1,700 locations.

“We took a hard look at our salad line and decided those options were not as relevant to consumers as they were just a few short years ago,” said Chick-fil-A vice president of product strategy and development David Farmer in a statement.

Contact Erin Dostal at erin.dostal@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @ErinDostal