Sunday, October 22, 2006

Things I don't bother to wish for...

Things I don't bother to wish for: that restaurant chains would, on their own initiative, start serving smaller portions than their customers desire.

A series of studies in recent years has found that restaurant serving portions have increased in the past several decades. As people consume ever higher fractions of their calories in restaurants, these increases are implicated in the growing rates of overweight and obesity.

Yet, in Nanci Hellmich's USA Today article yesterday about restaurant portion sizes, an Applebee's executive explains why a business cannot on its own initiative just reduce these portion sizes:
Kurt Hankins, vice president of menu development for Applebee's, the nation's biggest casual dining chain, says portion sizes are determined by asking guests to rate meals for their size as well value and taste. "A simple portion reduction for no apparent reason would not be well accepted."
Readers of this weblog know we keep an eye out for economically feasible steps that businesses might take to improve their nutrition profile (I was going to say "incentive-compatible steps," but I can't find a link to a good definition of that economic jargon, so will leave an explanation for a later post).

Unlike many restaurant chains, the Applebee's website currently appears not to disclose nutrition facts for most foods on the menu, while disclosing only a few non-representative Weight-Watchers items (am I wrong?). Suppose Applebee's began to disclose nutrition facts information for all products on menus or another prominent place. To avoid being skewered by competitors, the chain might want to take steps to encourage similar disclosure by the remaining laggard chains, to level the playing field. Instead of secretly supporting the anti-consumer attack dogs at the Center for Consumer Freedom, as has been reported, Applebee's would want to work with more reputable public interest groups to promote the widespread availability of the information consumers really need.

Then, as Applebee's continues to collect information about what portion sizes consumers like, they might see a change in consumer desires. With the nutrition facts hidden, it is economically mandatory for restaurants to offer oversized portions. It may be the case that widely available nutrition facts would liberate fiercely competitive companies to offer healthier portion sizes.

Applebee's current posture -- non-disclosure of the nutrition facts and then blaming the consumer for poor nutrition choices -- is pretty ironic, don't you think? Dear Applebee's, the solution may be right in front of you. If your consumers resist a move to healthy portions "with no apparent reason," then perhaps you should start letting your consumers know the reason.

[Hat tip to a student who emailed the news link that led to this post].


yyy777 said...
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Anonymous said...

An idea a friend suggested that I liked-- what about having restaurants offer a smaller portion (for a slightly smaller price), and have "seconds" available for a few dollars more? I'm not sure how realistic such a scenario would be, but it would be interesting to see whether people reconsidered increasing the portions when they had some time to see if they were full first.

Tery Spataro said...

Shouldn't we be grownup enough to know when we consumed enough food? Though I did grow up with my parents making me feel guilty for not finishing my dinner entirely...

Tricia said...

To answer Tery: There's research showing that people will eat more when it's on the plate, when people next to them are still eating, stuff like that. This was discussed in a recent NYTimes piece, but it's probably in the $archive$ by now. If I'm remembering correctly, the researcher who looks at this is at Cornell (previously somewhere in the Midwest).

And apparently Ray Kroc (McDonald's) took major convincing on the "super size" notion - he was of the opinion that people would just order "seconds" if they wanted more. Someone did store-level research to convince him that wasn't true.

Finally, Michael Pollan (author of _The Omnivore's Dilemma_) has made the point that when the prices of raw ingredients decreased, restaurants and food companies felt like they couldn't lower the price of foods, so they increased the sizes instead - effectively lowering the cost, but since we have this drive to 'clean the plate' (that's not just a result of early parenting, but built in survival instincts) it's led to our crazy eating patterns.

I wonder how many consumers really would push companies to reduce portion sizes in order to reduce calories? Honestly, what percentage of the general public cares, and what percentage wants to 'maximize value'?? I'm aware of all these issues, but I still find myself comparison shopping for value as well as nutrition.