Before changing your offerings, understand what your customers want

We’ve seen a lot of news in recent months from restaurant chains announcing plans to incorporate “healthier” ingredients such as cage-free eggs or hormone-free chicken, or to emphasize healthful menu options.

But before you decide to make a big deal out of “healthy” ingredients or menu items, you need to have a deep understanding of whether this is something your customers are demanding, and, if so, how much they’re willing to pay to make a health-conscious buying decision.

Tied to this, it’s important to understand your customers’ buying habits at the transaction level. Which menu items sell with each other? And which items could handle a price increase without hurting customer demand?

If you are pushing healthful options, they need to either help your bottom line or be of significant value to your brand. Otherwise, this move wouldn’t help your business.

Here are some things to consider when you’re deciding whether to highlight more healthful ingredients or items on your menu.

Know your customer transaction data inside and out.

When it comes to asking customers whether they want more healthful options, this is one case where surveying can lead to the wrong answer. There is a bias associated with this type of questioning — most everyone will say they want to eat healthfully — so survey results don’t tell the whole story. You have to analyze your customer transaction data to understand what customers are actually buying and how much they are willing to pay for certain items.

Years of analyzing restaurant transaction data have told us that customers don’t necessarily opt for more healthful options. For example, as some restaurants have started adding calorie counts on menus, we haven’t seen a notable shift in customers buying lower-calorie items at those establishments.

Perhaps the reason customers don’t always opt for a more healthful option is because, from a menu development perspective, it’s difficult to develop a healthful, low-calorie item that carries a high value perception for customers. Restaurant patrons tend to want food that tastes good and leaves them feeling satisfied, and that the item was worth what they paid.

Before you broadly introduce more healthful menu offerings, determine whether your customers will buy them.

Test, test and then test some more. Since customer surveys aren’t reliable, the only way to know whether your customers will buy a more healthful item is to test it. Introduce the item in a certain market (or markets) and see how well it does before rolling it out on a larger scale. But it’s extremely important that you be thoughtful in how you run the tests.

As an example, when testing a new item, consider the time of year for the test. If you are testing a healthful menu item, the first of the year wouldn’t be a good time to get a valid result because so many people are focused on healthful eating then.

Understanding the traits of each meal period is important as you determine how to test. At lunch, for example, speed of service is the main concern for customers, so that might not be the best meal period to test the popularity of healthful menu options.

Know the difference between “healthy” and “quality.”

When talking about more healthful ingredients and menu items, we need to start by distinguishing between “healthy” and “quality.” They aren’t necessarily the same thing. In some cases, such as cage-free eggs, there is a socially conscious element at play, as opposed to a question about nutrition.

There can also be a perception that using higher quality ingredients equates to more healthful meals, but that can’t be a promise. For example, using hormone-free chicken may be a higher quality ingredient, but how it’s prepared and presented in a dish could make it very unhealthful.

If you decide to introduce a more healthful menu item, know the reasons why — and be sure to tell your customers.

In general, you should never remove menu items that a significant percentage of your customers are buying. So if you decide to replace an item with a “healthy” option, be clear on what your goals are so you can define your expectations for success.

Is it to add a “veto item” to your menu? In this case, the veto item would be for the small percentage of people at your burger restaurant who want to eat healthfully. For example, Dad wants a cheeseburger with bacon, but Mom wants something she sees as a healthful option, so she orders the salad highlighted as a “healthy” option.

Or is it to drive traffic? Tread carefully on this one: Unless your entire brand is built around health, this approach probably won’t work.

Lastly, if you decide to introduce more healthful menu items or ingredients, tell your customers in a way they will notice. A great way to communicate these options is through your menu, with a separate section or header on the menu calling out the “healthy” items. And if highlighting these items will help burnish your brand, signage in your restaurant or other promotional strategies may also be a good idea.

Mark Kuperman, president, North America, at Revenue Management Solutions, manages client accounts across all food and beverage segments. Kuperman earned a B.A. in economics with a minor in statistics from Northwestern University before attending the California Culinary Academy and completing an apprenticeship in Europe. After several years working as a chef, Kuperman returned to school to earn his master’s degree in hospitality management from Cornell University. After graduation, he followed his entrepreneurial spirit and opened a fast-food restaurant.

Originally published on March 3, 2016 by Nation’s Restaurant News

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