The restaurant industry has a fair amount of uncertainty, but menu labeling and its requirements may be one of the most ambiguous challenges operators have faced in recent years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released proposed regulations in 2011. Three years later, we are still waiting for the final rulings, but operators can take steps toward accurate labeling now.
Menu labeling triply challenges pizza operators. First, pizzeria menus offer greater variety than other industry segments. Second, customization inherent in the offering makes standardization far more difficult. Third, pizza — in its wonderful decadence — often has higher calorie counts than other comparable segments. Add to the pie the expected costs of analysis, and menu labeling becomes a supreme problem. Or not. With the right partner and the right information, operators can stay true to their brands while providing the necessary information and options that comply with menu labeling standards. It’s as easy as pie, or in this case, as easy as 1-2-3.
1. Standardization. With 34 million varieties of pizza offerings and toppings in pizzerias today, anticipating the nearly infinite number of combinations in order to create accurate menu labels would be impossible. To accommodate, operators should look to standardize the number of choices offered for different pizza sizes. Though it may feel limiting, a good operator knows customer favorites and most-ordered combinations. Start there, then create — and follow — standardized recipes for the back of the house. Streamlining your options will lead to more accurate nutritional information and may help with other operational challenges.
2. Third-party analysis. Who conducts the nutritional analysis — and how much it costs — are also critical factors in the process. Three options are available for menu analysis: laboratory analysis, self-analysis or third-party analysis. Each has benefits and drawbacks, but in the draft regulations, the FDA accepts all three options.
Laboratory analysis is the most precise, but it also carries the highest price tag and is less flexible when menu ingredients change. Self-analysis requires purchasing a database program, which can be costly, and the process will require a great deal of staff time. Moreover, self-analysis may not be as accurate, which could be problematic with regulators and customers. Another option is to have a third-party company analyze menu items using a private database. This is less expensive than lab analysis and provides reliable information that you can update easily when you add or change menu items.
3. Healthful alternatives. Pizza is not salad (news flash!), but menu labeling isn’t the end of pizza. Though some believe instinctively that, given the choice, diners will choose low-calorie foods, this theory has not played out in reality. In fact, researchers have studied the effects of calorie counts on overall calorie consumption in areas where menu labeling is currently required, and the results are mixed. In one study of Starbucks in New York City, researchers did find a 6% decrease in calories consumed per transaction. But two recent studies of local calorie disclosure laws in King County, Wash., and New York City found no significant change in calorie intake.
So operators need not fear. But they also shouldn’t sit back and wait. Instead, we recommend using menu labeling laws to engage at a deeper level with customers. If you have 20 or more units, the law requires you to do the analysis, so why not use the process to your advantage — and your customers’ advantage? Menu analysis could open possibilities for new options that appeal to everyone walking through the doors, eliminate the “no” vote and even appeal to not-yet or lapsed customers.
Think of it. A pizza that features only fresh vegetables will appeal to vegetarians and those worried about fat intake. Smaller versions of traditional pies will appeal to calorie-counters. And a menu that notes where allergens or gluten are present — and offers allergen-free options — will appeal to customers with special dietary needs and communicate that your brand cares.
Regardless of what the FDA decides, we recommend keeping nutritional information straightforward and easy to access, with nutritional evaluations for gluten- and allergen-free menu items. We also recommend implementing a policy for your employees to follow concerning allergens, nutrition questions and food preparation, ensuring the standardization we described above and preparing them for potential questions about the ingredient deck or nutritionals. Finally, operators should use disclaimers to notify customers of nutritional variations that can occur with scratch cooking and food preparation.
Whether we find out about menu labeling regulations in two weeks or another two years, the process doesn’t have to be negative. The combination of standardizing the menu and relying on third-party expertise will actually start to flip the fear. Moreover, when you correctly communicate accurate, up-to-date nutritional information, you give your customer peace of mind. Both go a long way toward establishing a deeper sense of trust between operators and employees — and between your brand and its guests.
Betsy Craig is the CEO and Founder of MenuTrinfo®, LLC, a nutritional analysis and food service training company dedicated to helping foodservice operators including institutions, restaurants and catering operations protect the lives and health of customers by meeting and exceeding new nutritional labeling regulations as required by law.
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