Diners at big-chain restaurants like Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse will soon see just how many calories are in the baby back ribs or Bloomin Onion they ordered, right on the menu.
New menu labeling laws, part of the 2010 health care legislation commonly known as Obamacare, charged the Food and Drug Administration with requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations to post the calorie count for each item on their menus. Additional nutritional information like fat, carbohydrates and fiber content must be readily available on request.
The rules, proposed by the FDA in 2011 and expected to take effect this spring, also apply to bakeries, coffee chains, and grocery and convenience stores. However, the grocery and convenience store industries have been fighting for exemption from the new regulations, which has delayed the FDA in finalizing them.
FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a recent interview with The Associated Press the agency is in the final stages of writing the menu labeling regulations, and the final rules should come out in the “relative near term.”
With only the large chains affected by the menu labeling law, several local restaurateurs say they have no plans to put calorie counts on their own menus.
Ed Knight, co-owner with his wife, Diane, of the three Penguin Ed’s Barbecue restaurants in Fayetteville, said to his knowledge, no customers have ever requested nutritional information for their menu items.
Knight, whose wife serves on the Arkansas Restaurant Association’s board of directors, said without a large number of requests from customers, he probably wouldn’t put that data on the menu.
“Your average customer probably understands that if it’s sweet, there’s some sugar in there and some carbohydrates,” he said.
“And I’m not sure of its ultimate effect on customers. I think people are still going to come in and order barbecue sauce regardless of the numbers on the label.”
The restaurant industry has largely supported the menu labeling initiative, and most national chains already have nutritional information for their menu items posted on their websites.
Rich Jeffers, a spokesman for Darden Restaurants Inc., said the company whose brands include Olive Garden and Red Lobster not only supports the new law, but took a lead role in efforts to establish a national standard for nutrition disclosure.
“Having a uniform, national standard allows us to take a consistent approach to providing nutritional information, rather than having to react to inconsistent state and local regulations,” Jeffers said. “This will ensure our guests see the same information, presented in the same manner, no matter where they dine with us.”
He said nutritional analysis is built into Darden’s process for developing menu items, so most of the analysis needed to comply with the new law has already been performed and won’t pose an added cost.
“The primary cost will come from printing new menus,” he said. “Having a single, national standard will allow us to minimize cost by printing uniform materials for each of our brands.”
And because Darden reprints its menus at least once a year, that’s a fixed cost built into the brands’ business models, he added.
Applebee’s not only posts nutritional information online, but also has it available in the restaurants in case diners ask to see it, said Dan Smith, a spokesman for the chain’s owner, DineEquity Inc.
Smith said the company has a governmental affairs team that stays in close contact with the FDA and keeps the company apprised of the law’s status.
“Any regulation of this type is a logistical challenge, but we’ve been working on the new rules, and we’ll be in a position to comply,” he said.
Regarding customer feedback, Applebee’s guests are looking for options, whether it’s indulgent options or more calorie-conscious fare.
The company partners with Weight Watchers to offer menu items, he said.
Applebee’s also has a selection of items labeled “Unbelievably great tasting and under 500 calories,” Smith said.
Through menu engineering and preparation techniques like steaming and adding lemon zest, the chefs can keep the calorie counts on these dishes low, Smith said.
“These options aren’t just promotional options for us. They are on the menu year-round,” he said. “And we add items throughout the year.”
Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s, started providing nutritional information to its customers in 1999, company spokesman Maureen Locus said, and has made it available online — including allergen information — since 2005.
Chili’s locations include one each in Rogers and Fayetteville.
The company “fully supports the passage of the nutritional labeling law because of the promised uniform national standard, protection from frivolous lawsuits and flexibility for restaurants in how they choose to present information to guests,” Locus said.
She added it’s very common for patrons to ask for substitutions for side dishes or adjustments in how food is prepared, and the restaurant teams readily comply with the requests.
Food industry research firm Technomic Inc. found in a survey last fall that 65 percent of restaurant patrons favor nutritional labeling in restaurants. The strongest demand is for posting of calories and sodium content.
Also, 68 percent of customers want nutritional information on the menus at all restaurants, not just chains. About the same percentage say having this information is helpful in making ordering decisions, and believe it has a positive impact on consumer health and nutrition.
“Consumers believe that more readily available information will help them make more informed choices when eating out,” Bob Goldin, Technomic’s executive vice president and the director of the study, said in a news release. “As a consequence, we expect restaurants will face growing pressure for more comprehensive nutritional disclosure.”
But folks in Northwest Arkansas don’t appear to be as concerned about calories and other nutritional data when dining out, local restaurant owners say.
Brenda Swango, managing partner and a co-owner of River Grille Steakhouse in Bentonville, said she doesn’t recall any customers asking for calorie counts on menu items.
“We try to educate our wait staff, of course, not so much on the calorie count but on what the ingredients are and stuff like that,” she said. “We do get quite a few people in here that have diet restrictions, but that’s pretty much all we’ll probably do.
“If [customers] were to ask, our servers are educated enough to lead them in the right direction.”
The restaurant’s chef tries to offer some healthier options, Swango said, and because everything is made fresh, they can be flexible about how dishes are prepared.
“So if someone says, ‘Hey, can you sear that and not put butter on it,’ we do all those things,” she said.
Ed Knight of Penguin Ed’s said, “In terms of healthy offerings, I think we offer as many and varied things as anyone.”
The menu already includes a large number of vegetarian items, and the Knights are planning to add more soon.
“We have Portobello mushroom sandwiches, we have black bean burgers, we have garden burgers, we have three or four different salads,” he said. “And I might add that our chicken salad is the No. 2 item in terms of sales on our list of everything we sell,” after the pulled pork sandwich.
“We’re choosing to function on the healthier side of our menu, particularly for a barbecue restaurant,” he said. “So that’s kind of where we stand on that.”