Thursday, August 18, 2005

Healthy fast food not selling well

For a time, the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain attempted to promote several healthier menu options, according to an article by Margaret Webb Pressler in the Washington Post today. But....
But diners didn't bite. So Ruby Tuesday has eliminated the Blueberry D'Lite, along with several other healthful dishes ditched after a lengthy period of slumping sales at the chain. Calorie and fat information was dropped except on the healthful items that survived and were moved to the back of the menu.

Now the chain is aggressively promoting its biggest burgers, and in the last three months, burger sales are up 3 to 4 percent. It has also restored its larger portions of french fries and pasta.
The article includes an interview with a Dan McDonald of Fredericksburg, VA, who is worried about his weight gain of 30 pounds in 5 years. Yet, the article finds him for his interview in the drive-through line in a Burger King. For work reasons, he eats quick fast food lunches of a cheeseburger and soda about four times per week. He knows about the comparatively healthy recent fast food offerings, but when he himself eats fast food, he just chooses what he wants most. "My problem," he says, "is I need to stay out of fast food places."

Everybody involved in this article seems to be thinking clearly: Pressler (the writer), the fast food companies, and Dan McDonald of Fredericksburg. For the fast food companies, it was worth a try to promote healthier options within their format. As Pressler goes on to describe, if real healthy options aren't selling, it may even make business sense for the fast food companies to promote unhealthy food under the pretense of being healthy. However, IF the healthy options don't sell well, it will be tempting for the fast food companies to promote them less heavily or eliminate them from the menu altogether.

So, am I in the camp that wants to throw up its hands and say, "American consumers don't really want healthy food anyway?" No! I admire the fast food companies for trying to offer healthy food within their existing high-volume hyped-marketing profit-driven format. IF the fast food companies find that they can increase sales 3 or 4 percent by returning to unhealthy food only, and that is enough motivation to give up on promoting healthy food, then Dan McDonald of Fredericksburg has the right solution: we should stay out of fast food places.

IF the fast food companies give up on healthy food, it will be time for all American consumers who care at all about their weight and their health to shun the fast food format completely. IF the fast food companies give up on healthy food, it will be time for public health folks to give up on talking about "public-private cooperation" and "a constructive role for the industry" in this arena. Instead, it will be time for every effort to doom the format to a long slow decline as an increasingly aware consumer population learns to get its lunch elsewhere. No government regulation needed. No food police. No meetings to mend fences, either. Just a long steady consumer campaign to send fast food restaurants the way of the buggy whip.

IF the fast food companies give up on promoting healthy food.

[Update 9/18/2005 evening: See good comments by Jack and good criticism from Mark, who's got a more sensible take on some of this than I did. I'm reconsidering what I wrote. It would have helped if I had more clearly articulated the question of whether the problem with fast food is particular menu offerings, or whether there is something inherently anti-nutritious about the fast food format. That genuinely open question might have been more interesting meat for a post than my dreams of some sort of boycott.]

1 comment:

CreditEggHead said...

Fast food is not the only kind of food that is not good for your health. It won't hurt if you eat a burger or some fries once a month. It's ok to eat unhealthy food in limited amounts.