In a new monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. This installment explores consumer enjoyment of dining in the United States — and some current trends and issues that may be hindering it.
A focus on numbers, not food, could harm the restaurant industry
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, offers her view on the effect of "eat-by-number" advocates on the restaurant industry.
One of the things I love most about my job, Bret, is witnessing the positive changes that occurred over the past decade or so as the American consumer was at long last introduced to the pleasures of the table.
Thanks to the impact of the Food Network and the raging popularity of personalities like Emeril Lagasse, we began to really think about how food should taste and look. We became comfortable with wine and embraced a wide range of ethnic foods and flavors. Culinary became a profession of choice for thousands, and chefs took over menu development at chains, elevating quality across the board. It has been nothing short of revolutionary, and like all successful revolutions, it has happened from the bottom up. There’s nothing elitist about dining out; it’s an enjoyable pursuit of, by and for the people.
That’s why I’m both alarmed and deeply distressed by the steady rise of the eat-by-numbers crowd, who, in response to legitimate concerns relative to health and obesity, insist that consumption be governed by data — that everything be reduced to calories, grams or ounces. Many are professional scolds who’d denigrate the great Julia Child, a patron saint of dietary moderation, for extolling the French fries at McDonald’s. Others mean well but seem to think that gastronomy should be reduced to a mathematical formula.
Don’t misunderstand me: I recognize the very real public health issues that plague us, but I disagree with the notion that the incomparable, irreplaceable satisfaction of a well-prepared meal must be sacrificed to numbers.
Indeed, there’s plenty of proof in the mass market that attractive dishes and health aren’t mutually exclusive: the commitment to fresh, local produce by chains like Shari’s; the low-calorie,-driven cuisine at Seasons 52, which plays to packed houses; or the large number of tasty items that break neither the piggy bank nor the calorie bank on McDonald’s Favorites under 400 Calories menu. These are just a few of the many good examples that get lost in the pontificating and political grandstanding.
Are the nags and neo-Puritans going to take over or will cooler, more culinary heads prevail? I’m pretty worried that it will be the former, Bret. What about you?
Focusing on numbers won't diminish restaurants' capacity to provide delicious food
The following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn's response to Nancy Kruse's opinion on what's happening to consumer enjoyment of food in the industry.
Nancy, I also worry about people who seem to have forgotten that eating is one of the great pleasures in life and want to take the fun out of it.
In fact, I lamented that very thing a few years ago as regulations requiring calorie information to be printed on menus and menu boards of chain restaurants in New York City, where I live, were about to go into effect.
As you point out by calling the latest breed of food police neo-Puritans, hostility toward the enjoyment of food has a long and storied history in the United States. As I’m sure you know, it was a drive to reduce the amount of delicious fats like lard, butter and beef tallow from our diets that led to a rapid increase in our consumption of artificial trans fats. Butter was replaced by margarine, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil became our standard frying medium, and the American public became the unwitting victims of well-intentioned people acting with the best intentions, using the best science available and turning out to be wrong — at least according to current science.
Will menu labeling — something that is already required by restaurants in a number of U.S. jurisdictions and that will become national law if the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act goes into effect — also have unanticipated ill effects?
I know that when I go into a quick-service restaurant and notice that a large order of fries has only 70 more calories than a regular order of fries, I consider ordering the larger order because it seems like calories well spent. But I also know that, as much as I hate to admit it, that I like having that calorie information. I’m one of a growing number of Americans who are overweight, and it’s good to know how many calories I’m consuming.
But has knowing calorie count affected what I eat or what other New Yorkers eat? The early evidence is still spotty, but what seems to happen is that customers react with shock when they first see how fattening their favorite menu item is. They hold back for a couple of weeks, and then they go right back to ordering what they’ve always ordered.
But something else has happened, and it’s actually what the menu labeling advocates thought would happen. Several years before any menu labeling regulations had gone into effect, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service predicted that if restaurants were required to label their menus, they would ultimately make menu items that were better for customers.
And, in fact, chain restaurants are doing just that. A number of corporate chefs have told me that, in their ideation sessions for new items, nutrition is one of the first things they consider. Does the most nutritious item, or the one with the fewest calories, make it onto the menu? Not usually, but at the very least it’s being considered — a huge change from just a few years ago that has probably already resulted in dishes whose calorie counts are less likely to shock the people buying them.
Will the “nags and neo-Puritans” win? I don’t think so.
Restaurateurs have a remarkable capacity for overcoming obstacles. They said smoking bans would drive them out of business, and it didn't. They said it was impossible to remove artificial trans fats from their restaurants, and it wasn't.
Will food by the numbers diminish their capacity to provide delicious food? I suspect that it won’t.