America’s Eating Habits

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Denny’s will soon be launching a Fried Cheese Melt and a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor asked me a few questions while working on an article about the subject. This is a topic which has lots of off-shoots both in terms of restaurant marketing and also wider implications for America’s eating habits.

Q: Why do restaurants offer these high-calorie kinds of entrees at a time when everyone from the White House on down is urging the opposite?

A: Some of the large chains that sell unhealthy foods have a vested interest in keeping America’s eating habits the same. The profit is higher in highly-processed, calorie-laden foods. These foods are easier to transport, have a longer shelf-life, are cheaper than wholesome/natural ingredients, have less waste and spoilage issues to manage through the supply chain, are simpler to handle/cook requiring less skilled labor, are easier to ‘systematize’ and keep standard in a large chain, and they are easy to sell to a certain segment of the population because they are cheap foods that fill bellies.

Q: If it’s to appeal to their most regular customers, what share of business do those customers usually represent?

A: Consumers spend less today, as a percentage of their time and income, than ever before in human history finding food. In the hunter-gatherer days, finding food took most of the day. Today, you can cram more calories in your belly spending just 30-seconds in the drive-thru than you could in a week of the hunter-gatherer days. In some cases, a Big Mac® costs less than a single piece of fruit. Given the option between broccoli at $1.29 per pound versus a $.99 hamburger, many Americans, by necessity, are forced to eat the hamburger; necessity of time, money and lifestyle. A bucket of fried food will keep the belly full longer than a fresh garden salad. Millions of Americans chase the cheap-calories, and restaurant marketers like those at Denny’s understand this.

Q: Who’s the target audience?

A: Sadly it is those short on time and money. It’s the truck driver who is running fewer routes. It’s the family of five living on $30,000 per year. It’s the obese couple who desperately wants to lose weight, but don’t have the ideal options of time, money, lifestyle or healthy influences and alternatives in their life. It’s the college kid who stays out late partying with his friends and opts for the cheap-calorie end to a binge. The audience isn’t that beautiful model we see in the commercials. It’s the 1/3 of America that is obese. More than 2/3’s of American’s are overweight. Take a look at the listing of the top 400 largest restaurant chains in America and you will spot a lot of similarities in menu offerings and approaches.

Q: Do high-calorie entrees work?

A: Unfortunately, yes, they do. The customer spends less money and gets more calories and the restaurant gets higher margin and less hassle. It works for both of them. It also works for the doctors and medical industry. We spend more than $100 BILLION on healthcare related to food and nutrition issues.

Q: What do these entrees say about the America’s eating habits?

A: There is a correlation between the weight of Rome’s citizens and the fall of that empire. The same uptick in our nation’s weight can be correlated to the rise of the East, as in Asia and China. We are among the heaviest in the world, and our global competitiveness is falling at almost the same pace as our waistlines are growing. The White House is right to take this issue on. We need to change how the government subsidizes food. There are 280,000 deaths each year in America due to obesity. There are many resources on our eating habits that you can check out – four of them are:

i. Healthcare industry benefits from misguided food industry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4DOQ6Xhqss
ii. Obesity rates, short report: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_1u_RVaULE&feature=related
iii. See the trailer on this site: http://www.freshthemovie.com (“Cheap Food is an Illusion”).
iv. Uncovering the Sickness Industry:

Q: San Francisco is considering banning the Happy Meal® toys because they lure kids to eat unhealthy foods. Is that fair?

A: In the coming years we will see a major offensive in proposed legislation to regulate the food industry. The trial lawyers are looking for their next big pay-day. They took on the tobacco industry and made billions. Government is always looking for ways to regulate the restaurant industry (Readers, see also: https://aaronallen.com/blog-post/rants-raves/restaurant-grades). The major fast food chains are going to be natural targets. I believe there are enough trends in motion to one day change how we eat. Ballooning health care costs, reducing global competitiveness, emerging social movements like that portrayed in Food, Inc, and general angst in the population are all contributing to a renewed awareness on the importance of eating better. I think many American’s would like to eat better. We as a restaurant industry need to do better at providing the options and education. We have a responsibility to do so and we are being irresponsible by producing menus based primarily on profits. The industry is waiting for consumers to vote for better food with their wallets. The Denny’s Fried Cheese Melt® is a candidate in this election and millions of American’s will vote for it rather than the opponent, which is healthy food and lifestyle. The stage is being set for a big fight between both sides of the industry’s lobbyists and leaders with the American consumer in the middle.

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