Many restaurant chains plan to order more low-calorie, gluten-free and locally sourced products this year, according to the third menu price survey by supply chain cooperative SpenDifference.

More than half of the 48 chains that responded to the survey said they plan to increase the number of low-calorie or light options they offer this year. The majority also said they plan to increase gluten-free offerings, SpenDifference said. The survey marked the first time SpenDifference asked respondents about their plans to offer those options.


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“There’s a growing demand for low-calorie and gluten-free menu items that will be with us for a long time,” SpenDifference president and chief executive Maryanne Rose said in a statement. “Operators recognize that a growing number of customers have health-related dietary restrictions, and they are revamping their menus to include choices for them, as well as for those who simply want more healthful choices.”

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said they have gluten-free options and 53 percent said they offer light or low-calorie options.

Lighter items are becoming more widespread on menus. For instance, Houlihan’s focused on that theme for the spring-summer specials menu it introduced last month.

At the start of the new year, a number of chains, including Jack in the Box, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Jamba Juice, Del Taco and Panera Bread, marked the resolution season by making permanent changes to their menus that included lighter options.

The outlook for organic products is less clear, the survey found.

Nine percent of restaurants surveyed said they currently use organic products, and the use of organic items is expected to rise 13 percent. However, 11 percent of fast-casual chains said they plan to reduce their use of organic products, which Rose attributed to supply chain issues.

“Better-for-you items are niche products, and movement on these is not as high as mainstay menu offerings,” she said in the release. “Low-volume movement adds to freight costs, and distributors can have a hard time stocking the items.”

She added that looking for local sources for such products can help reduce freight costs. According to the survey, 33 percent of respondents said they currently use local products, and 37 percent said they plan to serve more locally sourced menu items.

A number of medium-sized chains have initiated plans for more local sourcing.

Family-dining chain Eat’n Park, based in the Pittsburgh area, has long included local products in the salad bars at its 71 locations. The chain highlights available items on its blog and uses point-of-sale promotions.

The Melting Pot also has started using products from local farms and bakeries at its 135 locations. The initiative was spearheaded by corporate chef Shane Schaibly, who recently moved to breakfast, brunch and lunch chain First Watch, where he plans to implement a similar program at its more than 115 units.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary