Capitalize on “Fast Healthy” Trends in Your QSR

Convenience, cost and taste have been the key factors pushing customers to one QSR or another. Millennials are adding “healthier” to this list.

Americans are spending as much as 42 percent of their food budgets eating out, according to a 2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. While this is good news for restaurants, it’s not always good news for the population’s collective waistline. Everyone knows obesity rates are out of control, and high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar diets, along with sedentary lifestyles, are the culprits. But it’s not just obesity, diabetes and heart disease that are driving the younger generations of Millennials and Generation Z towards healthier food options. “Clean” eating, which advocates the elimination of chemicals, GMO ingredients, antibiotics and hormones, has taken hold and the prediction is that this trend will grow. In response, a crop of fast and healthy quick service restaurants are spreading like kale across the continent. Here’s what foodservice operators of traditional QSRs need to know about this growing trend.

So what does a fast and healthy QSR look like?

There is a wide range of what we might call “fast and healthy,” including big guns Panera and Chipotle, which promise healthier options and have gotten rid of antibiotic-fed chicken and other “dirty” ingredients. Fast-growing start-ups like Lyfe and Sweetgreen offer completely clean menus. In between, there are options like Freshii that focus on a “Let’s Eat. Energize” philosophy, or Elevate Burger, which dishes up organic burgers and fries, fat and salt included. What they all have in common is a focus on things that matter to their customers, particularly Millennials. Key elements of a fast and healthy QSR are:

1. Offering food transparency

Millennials want to know what they’re eating. Fast and healthy QSRs display everything from ingredient sourcing lists to calorie counts, and make their philosophy the cornerstone of their brand. Millennials are more likely to eat whole foods that are locally and/or ethically sourced and without additives. Non-GMO foods are poised to become the next clean item in demand.

2. Highlighting “fresh” in their food and as a design element

Using reclaimed wood and serving its meals on china, Lyfe Kitchen leads the way in leveraging interior design to claim the healthy territory. Food preparation areas showcase ingredients where customers can confidently see the quality of the food.

3. Delivering on taste

Without the fat, salt and sugar, many people doubt they will find the food at these establishments tasty. However, Michael Donahue, the co-founder and chief brand officer of Lyfe Kitchen confidently told the New Yorker “…we need to attract the people who have always assumed that healthy food has to taste like straw. If they try it, we have them.”

4. Keeping it fast

Convenience is still a key element, and fast and healthy QSRs deliver on this promise.

What can an established fast food restaurant do to compete?

There have been many failures as fast food restaurants have attempted to offer healthier menu items, such as the McLean burger. But McDonald’s recent move to antibiotic-free chicken and to butter instead of margarine indicates that if you haven’t already started considering how to health-ify your QSR, you have some catching up to do.

The good news is that a purely clean menu is not required. Reduced fat is also not a key driver anymore – healthier fats are in, trans fats are out. Hidden sugars, GMO foods, hormone and antibiotic-fed meats, and highly processed foods are the key things Millennials do NOT want on the menu. Rather than thinking about it as “health food,” which conjures images of tofu and a bunch of bitter greens, think of it as “healthy and healthier.” While Millennials want to eat healthier overall, they are also happy to partake in indulgent treats that throw all the rules out the window – just not on a regular basis. The other thing to consider is that Millennials will pay more if they think it’s worth it, so if you are going to move to antibiotic-free meats, you can offset the cost by passing it along to your customers.

Ranking from easy changes to transformative ones, we advise QSRs to consider the following options to keep up with the fast and healthy movement.

Easiest to implement:

  • Remove trans fats. If you haven’t done this, do it now, and make sure your customers know.
  • Make nutritional information easily available, whether on your website, app or in-store. The fact that you are openly sharing this information sends a message of confidence in your offering.
  • Add an alternative protein option to one of your meals. Make it tasty and delicious, and make sure it makes sense on your menu.

A moderate commitment:

  • To whatever degree you are able, remove “dirty” food items from your menu. Again, you do not need a 100 percent organic menu to benefit from this, and if you are able to offer a better-quality ingredient, like beef raised without antibiotics and hormones, you can pass the cost along to consumers.
  • Source ingredients locally whenever you can. This may be challenging for larger networks, but breaking it down by region may permit some local sourcing. Another way to leverage the desire for local products is to find a local company making a niche soda or potato chip that can be brought into regional markets. For smaller networks, sourcing local meat, veggies, fruit and dairy is a big advantage you can play up over big-name competition.

Going for the green

A transformation to move your QSR closer to fast and healthy is something that needs to be thought out and managed incrementally, but given that Millennials and Generation Z are focused on eating healthier, it’s clear this movement has momentum. While we are not suggesting everyone will soon be eating hemp and quinoa cakes for lunch, we do see the movement towards healthier living as a permanent direction. Again, it’s not “health food,” but healthier food.

A transformation project could be a mid-sized program where menu items, messaging and ingredient sourcing in concert with a strategic marketing campaign are the main focus. Or it could involve a redesign of physical stores, moving food preparation counters to where customers can see them, and aligning the design with a fresh, healthy approach. Innovation is the next step and could include developing unique sides, offering cooking classes, selling meal kits, or creating special “secret” menus with a health twist for those who are in the know. The key is to approach transformation strategically, and make sure you still do what you do best – only better.

While convenience, cost and taste are still relevant factors, “healthier” has demoted cost to the last (but still relevant) consideration on this list for Millennial consumers. With innovative, strategic thinking and commitment, traditional QSRs can see this as an opportunity rather than a detriment. Those who take advantage will reap the benefits.