Fast food chains split on calories

Harvester has put calories on its menus
Harvester has put calories on its menus

Brands with opposing stances on displaying calorie details are sizing up the risks.

Some of the high street's most recognised fast-food and restaurant brands face having their credentials reassessed by consumers this week as the Department of Health (DoH) discloses details of which ones are opting to display calorie information on their menus.

Marketing can reveal that Cafe Rouge, Bella Italia and Strada are expected to follow Subway and PizzaExpress by not signing up to the government's health initiative.

However, Harvester, KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald's are backing the DoH's voluntary 'Responsibility Deal', which was due to be unveiled as Marketing went to press.

KFC vice-president of marketing Jennelle Tilling says publicising the information will help people keep track of what they are consuming, although 'most come to (KFC) for a treat', she adds (see box).

Those brands that defy the initiative could well face a consumer backlash, particularly if there is widespread adoption from the industry's key players.

Displaying calorie information at 'point of purchase' is a move into uncharted waters. Under different circumstances, business decisions on areas as high-profile as health would be evidence-based. Whether adopters will be championed for their transparency and rewarded with a sales spike, or suffer because the information puts customers off their food, is uncertain.

One factor that will no doubt deter businesses, particularly smaller inde-pendents, is the costs involved. London restaurant chain The Real Greek says that, on average, it costs about £100 to test and certify each dish.

Last year, The Real Greek became the first to adopt a Food Standards Agency voluntary scheme to reveal calorie information. Liz Williams, its managing director, says this had a tangible impact on people's choices.

'We saw a shift to less calorific foods, and sales went up,' she adds. 'However, we're not sure if this was because of the disclosure or the coverage we received.'

Being one of the first to make a move has its risks, not least the fear of being vilified in the press for selling high-calorie-content food. On the flip side, being part of a movement that gives consumers greater transparency can deliver positive column inches.

Toby Southgate, managing director of branding agency The Brand Union, believes the risks are worth taking. 'Those brands that adopt early could win out, provided they handle the move carefully,' he says.

Southgate cites McDonald's, which has made efforts to 're-educate' its con-sumers about healthier eating, arguing that disclosing calories on its menu board could provide another fillip.

Calorie champions

Meanwhile, Subway, which is not adopting the DoH initiative, is already a frontrunner in disclosing calories and currently provides information on in-store posters. It claims that its queuing process differs from other fast-food chains and 'menu panels' are not suitable for it. Instead, it will be implementing its own tailored calorie information by the end of the year.

One point of interest will be if brands choose, unlike Harvester (see box), to go one step further and bring the calorie counts into their ads.

Whether or not KFC and McDonald's will be championed for their disclosure is likely be a matter for national tabloid editors. However, the rest of the industry should show gratitude and not underestimate the risks these brands are taking by putting themselves at the centre of the obesity debate. Their early adoption is ultimately likely to stave off more Draconian, industry-wide legislation.

IN MY VIEW: 'THERE'S AN APPETITE FOR CALORIE INFORMATION' - Adam Martin, Marketing and strategy director, Mitchells & Butlers

Mitchells & Butlers' 176-strong restaurant chain, Harvester is adding calorie information to menus. It is, says Martin, 'part of a wider disclosure across industry', where consumers now demand transparency about the provenance of their food.

'How this information is used and what affect it has is down to the individual.

But we recognise there is a growing appetite for calorie information and we're using our menu format and technology to help deliver it in an innovative way.'

Although Harvester is set to roll out a new television ad this spring, it will make no mention of calorie information.

Martin adds: 'I don't think consumers are that bothered.'

IN MY VIEW: 'It helps our customers keep track' - Jennelle Tilling, Vice-president marketing, KFC UK & Ireland

'We have worked hard to improve the nutritional profile of our menu, and some of our customers will be pleasantly surprised to see that a fillet burger contains only 459 calories, similar to many sandwiches you'd buy on the high street.

'We're putting calories on menus because we want to be as helpful to customers as possible. While not everyone is calorie-counting, and most customers come to us for a treat, providing the information helps those who want to keep track of what they're eating.

'This year we're also cutting saturated fat by up to 25%, and introducing Brazer, a lighter, non-fried, griddled option that provides customers with even more choice.'

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