Fast food takes a stab at healthy

Story by Kavita Kumar
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
Sat, Apr 16, 2011
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Hardee’s, a sibling company of Carls Jr., has built a testosterone-rich image around serving “young, hungry guys” ever bigger thickburgers and shocked many when the two became the first major fast-food chains to roll out a turkey burger last month.

The move came on the heels of McDonald’s recent introduction of fruit and maple oatmeal. Not to mention the fact that Burger King trotted out apple fries a couple of years ago.

After years of criticism for contributing to America’s ever-expanding waistline, is the fast-food industry finally going on a diet?

Well, not exactly.

“We have not gone with the carrot sticks and tofu topping,” Andrew Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants, said of the turkey burgers. “This is not nuts and bark. These are delicious, delicious, craveable burgers.”

Carl's Jr. and Hardee’s charbroiled turkey burgers still clock in at between 460 and 480 calories. But they are better for you compared to the chain’s thickburgers, which start off around 620 calories and go up to 1,320 calories.

And McDonald’s oatmeal, at 290 calories and 4.5 grams of fat, has been criticized by some for having more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 calories fewer than one of the chain’s cheeseburgers.

“It’s always been my position that it’s not my job to tell people what to eat,” Puzder said. “It’s my job to figure out what they want to eat and to serve it to them. So for years, we pooh-poohed the healthy food only because people didn’t buy it.”

Some of the salads and lower-calorie chicken sandwiches the company tested out in the past didn’t do very well. But now, research indicates that younger people want healthier, lower-fat options, he said.

Fast-food experts say Carl's Jr. and Hardee’s turkey burgers are a bold statement and a good step forward. But they note that consumers have not been too receptive to healthier food items in the past.

One of the big hurdles is that consumers don’t want to give up taste or to pay more for healthier choices, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for the research firm NPD Group.

“If you’re going to go in that direction, it’s going to have to taste good and it’s going to have to be affordable,” she said.

Another hurdle is that only about 10 percent of consumers say they actually want healthier items, she said. But that percentage, which stopped growing during the recession as people gravitated toward value menus, is on the rise now that the economy is on the mend, she said.

And the consumers who say they are looking to eat “healthy” when they go out don’t necessarily mean low-fat, low-calorie and low-salt items, Riggs said.

“It is quality foods as in fresh ingredients, going for smaller portions and more balanced food groups,” she said. “They watch calories when they are at home. But when they go out, they indulge a bit more.”

Words like “organic,” “hormone-free” and “all-natural” can actually be turnoffs to many consumers because they will assume that the products won’t taste good or be filling enough, she said.

So instead, restaurants should position them as “fresh,” “premium,” and “quality,” she said.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant consulting firm Technomic, noted that Burger King has struggled to keep up interest in the veggie burger it launched several years ago.

“It’s just a very narrow niche,” he said. “It’s been a struggle for them to maintain a volume to keep it in all of the stores.”

McDonald’s offering of apple slices in children’s meals seems to have been marginally successful — at least enough so to keep them on the menu, Tristano said. But it’s hard for those products to compete with the french fries.

Food experts expect that more fast-food chains will introduce lower-calorie options because they will soon be required to post calorie counts on their menus. The provision that affects all restaurant chains with more than 20 locations was included in the health care bill that passed last year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently said it planned to issue final rules around the regulation by the end of the year.

But experts don’t expect the posted calorie information to have a long-lasting impact on consumers’ food choices, based on the experience in other cities such as New York that already have similar rules in place.

“Consumers see it; they go ’Wow,’?” Tristano said. “Then they go back to what they are accustomed to. There’s a culture shock, then a return to normal behavior. We’re creatures of habit.”

Puzder of Hardee’s said the turkey burgers were not a response to the upcoming regulation.

“That requirement is idiotic,” he said. “Nobody is going to read it. Do you think people that smoke cigarettes actually ready the warning on the package? ... It’s not going to hurt us. If you think a burger and fries are low in calories and fat, then you’re really living under a rock.”

In addition to providing healthier options that consumers ostensibly want, the turkey burgers are also part of a strategy to try to bring in incremental business by taking market share away from other restaurants that people might otherwise go to if they want to eat healthy, Puzder said.

“In a vibrant economy, you can grow just because the economy is growing,” he said.

“Well, forget that. The economy is not growing ... In this kind of economy, the only way you’re going to be able to grow your business is by taking it from competitors.”

So Puzder hopes that the turkey burger might help reverse some of Carl’s Jr.’s fortunes. CKE Restaurants was a public company until last year when it was bought by Apollo Management, a private equity firm.

So far, the turkey burgers have been selling better than expected, bolstered by a memorable ad that showcases the reigning “Miss Turkey” in a bikini with little turkey burgers all over it.

In fact, Bruce Frazier, the company’s vice president of product marketing, research and development, lost an internal bet after under-guessing how many turkey burgers the company would sell in its opening weeks. The company didn’t disclose the figure.

In the meantime, Hardee’s is planning other product launches this year — another burger and a chicken sandwich — that are more in line with its core business.

So will Hardee’s follow up the turkey burger with a veggie burger?

“Probably not,” Puzder said. “The problem with veggie burgers is they are basically made of straw. ... When you put straw on the charbroiler, it catches fire. So I would say veggie burgers are a long shot.”

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