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Will calories on menus starve your business?

Dougie Hastings

Listen to customers watching waistlines as well as wallets

One in five people are re-evaluating their perception of your entire brand based on the calorific content of your bestselling dish. And, more than a third (36%) of people say they now dine out less than they did before calories were printed on menus. We are becoming a nation divided by, amongst other things, calories (and the commercial implications of this are huge). However, so are the commercial opportunities.

Restaurant groups and suppliers already face a completely different landscape post pandemic, but, as of April 2022, legislation requires that large businesses display calorie information on all menus at every point of sale, including takeaway options – which technically means there’s no getting away from this. In the months since the new legislation came into force, we’ve already witnessed a ripple effect play out across the hospitality industry, especially for brands serving burgers, pizza and other fast foods.

This becomes clear when you consider that 25% of customers say the move has made them rethink ordering more than one course – a claim that could dramatically impact your overall revenue. Moreover, when we frame this within the context of acute inflation and potential recession, we see that restaurant groups and suppliers face a major dilemma. Now that customers are considering both their waistlines and their wallets, how will this change their behaviours? And how will those changed behaviours impact your business?

Let individual need feed business opportunity

More than half of those surveyed (55%) said they considered 600 calories to be a medium calorie meal, so they may be surprised to discover that their favourite dish – which may also be your signature dish – comes in at 1,200 calories. What’s more, customers may be equally surprised to see the number your ‘light bites’ start at, and this brings to the fore something that shouldn’t be overlooked – nutritional value extends beyond the numbers, but the reality is that we live in a world of first impressions.

So, how do you bridge the gap between delivering the taste that customers crave, while maintaining the right narrative around food, keeping calories low, and offering the kind of choices that add commercial value to your business? With all of this going on, it is a good idea to really understand what your customers think you should do.

While nearly a third (32%) said they would change their order upon seeing the calorific content of their favourite dish, a quarter of respondents (26%) said they would actually be willing to pay more for a low-calorie option that tasted super indulgent. Clearly, this new commercial terrain is no place for guesswork, since the variables are vast and dependent on customer behaviours, lifestyle habits, health goals, financial worries, and, most of all, their motivation for choosing to dine out in the first place.

Restaurants need to find the right way to respond to, and meet, these individual needs because this kind of data can inform where exactly your development team focuses time and effort. What will give you the better chance of acquiring and retaining more customers; continuing to create key dishes ‘as usual’ for your next seasonal campaign or is there greater commercial benefit to be gained from redeveloping your signature dish, which may also be a higher calorie option?

Knowing how to change your menu, and knowing how to get it right, begins with knowing your customer – and knowing them well. Deep insight can inform the dishes you develop, how you market them and how you price them. If you give customers what they want, and you give them a reason to choose your restaurant, not only will they keep coming back, but they’ll recommend you to their friends and family too.

Put low-calorie dishes to the taste test

So, you’ve gathered your data, you’ve spent days and weeks developing delicious, low-calorie options, but now you need to put them to the taste test. Even if you achieve fantastic flavours at development stage, they may not fully translate to the table. How they play out in the ‘menu-ecosystem’ is a very different beast to a cook-off. Testing over a given period of time across a group of restaurants that represent your entire estate, will give you enough feedback to get it right, because you really can’t afford not to.  

Current commercial pressures are as intense as the competition, and all the more so now that pandemic discounts no longer apply, which means restaurant groups are effectively asking customers to pay more for dishes they’ve previously enjoyed at lower prices. This makes it especially tricky if the super-tasty, low-calorie version of your bestselling dish now comes at a higher price to cover your rising production and supply costs. Yes, customers may love it so much that they keep coming back for more, but they may choose to skip the wine or dessert in order to compensate for the higher cost and save on their bill.

These variables will remain unknown to you until you do the work required to get it right for your brand, and there’s no time to waste. Get ahead of the game now as you develop menus for the coming quarters – especially your Christmas menu. If you’ve already created a set menu, how confident are you that it’s positioned correctly, or that customers will care about calories during the festive season? These are factors you really need to consider before your launch any seasonal campaigns.

All of that said, be reassured that while this is a difficult situation for the entire hospitality sector, it’s not an impossible one. There’s no one solution or quick fix, but there is one thing you can be sure of – all redevelopment opportunities are good opportunities.

Give customers a reason to dine out

The right solution will differ from brand to brand, from dish to dish, from customer to customer, perhaps even from season to season. You need to keep asking your customers to help you navigate these changes and let them feed your strategy in a way that’s agile, responsive, and continually evolving. You’ll need to stay open, too. This is your invitation to go out and talk to all audiences, both existing and new. It’s an invitation to move into new market spaces.   

Let’s consider this, for example. More than half (54%) of 18-24 years olds applauded the move to put calories on menus, so maybe this is a whole new demographic for you to reach out to. There’s also a growing market of customers with specific dietary requirements, and an ever-increasing number of vegans looking for plant-based options. Maybe you could cater for them in ways you hadn’t previously considered – but you’ll need a menu that caters for their mates too. If those with specific dietary requirements do not feel acknowledged by your menu, both they and their friends will boycott your brand.

So, with all of this in mind, we can see that the hard work of putting calories on menus is far from done – there is much more to do, but with this also comes massive opportunity to reposition your business for success. And if you keep giving customers delicious, low-calorie reasons to keep choosing your restaurant – whether you’re selling burgers or salads – they will re-evaluate their perception of your entire brand for the better, giving you the freedom to explore new ways to grow your business you never previously would have thought possible.

 

Yonder surveyed a representative sample of 2,000 UK adults aged 18+ between 18th-19th June 2022.

What the UK think about calories on menus…

  • Almost a third (32%) of people say they would change their food selections upon seeing the number of calories in their chosen dish
  • Close to a quarter (24%) of people have changed what they usually order
  • 25% think that it has made them consider the number of courses they will eat
  • A fifth of people say that the addition of calories on menus has made them think about the type of restaurants they typically frequent
  • 73% of people say it won’t alter where they dine out, 16% say that it will make an impact
  • Over a third of people (36%) say they now dine out less because of the increased focus on calorie consumption
  • 50% of people admit to not having a maximum number of calories per dish in mind when they go out for a meal
  • Most people (55%) consider 600 calories to be a medium calorie main course, however, 22% classified it as a low-calorie dish, whilst 11% believed it to be a high calorie option
  • Taste was considered the most important factor when choosing a meal (57%)
  • Over half of people (54%) aged between 18-24 felt that calories on menus was a positive step forward, the highest across all age demographics

 

Confidently predict how audiences will respond to your business initiatives.

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