In 1989 when I was first starting my restaurant marketing business restaurateurs didn’t pay too much attention to marketing healthy menu items.

Back in the early 90s healthy brands were very one dimensional; literally, if a product had just one healthy attribute, such as low fat, it made the news.

Today, 21st century consumers are demanding. Menu items developed in partnership with a trusted third party such as the American Heart Association or endorsed by Weight Watchers grab today’s headlines.

A simple ingredient list isn’t enough today, and in fact, in California if you are a restaurant chain with more than 20 units, you must include nutritional information as well as calories, sodium, etc. in the restaurant and eventually on menu boards in-store.

With consumers more health conscious than ever, the time is NOW to develop your marketing and communications plans for getting your “healthy” messages heard.

A view of healthy

Developing a “healthy” offering is a process. The popular San Diego based fast casual restaurant chain, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill offers guests a HealthMex Menu which they introduced back in the early 90s. Ahead of its time then and on target for today, Rubio’s HealthMex brand includes menu items low in calories, fat, lower in sodium and customized to give consumers a choice to stay healthy. Rubio’s is known for the fish taco. The original fish taco is beer battered and deep fried, but HealthMex offers health-conscious guests grilled Mahi Mahi in their fish taco and racks up only 150 calories.

HealthMex Grilled Mahi Mahi

Serving size calories sodium carbs sugars protein
149 150 290 2 0 13

There are many athletes who eat Rubio’s HealthMex especially in sunny California where most are located. By partnering with running groups and sponsoring athletes’ events over the years, Rubio’s is a favorite among numerous teams and runners, and have seen sales increase of the HealthMex items.

Creating the Message—Eat Well. Live Well.

Health and wellness is where menu trends have been heading for years. Vegetarianism is on the rise. Simple messages, like identifying local ingredients on the menu or servers talking about reduced sodium, are likely to be noticed by consumers, who are increasingly aware.

Guests today are more sophisticated. They want inspired taste experiences and want to know where their food came from and to eat healthy without giving up taste. Restaurant operators are answering their cry by adding more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy and lean proteins to menus. They also are decreasing saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, sugar and excess calories. Now the need to communicate these changes to guests is key.

When creating your healthy messages focus on local and seasonal, where food and ingredients come from, how the food was produced and / or processed, what it does for the environment and what it is good for eyesight, digestion, etc. and understanding customers wants.

Give your Restaurant a Healthy-Makeover

Follow this checklist to get started:

1. Determine which menu items could use a down-sized version or calorie reduction.

2. Try incorporating uber-healthy foods that will continue to sprout including: goji berries, yerba mate, acai and even blueberries, cranberries and soy.

3. Does certification on any menu items make sense: Kosher, fair-trade, organic, American Heart Association, Weight Watchers: such organizations are setting standards to identify healthy consumer offerings. In addition to the credibility they provide, the process of certification itself shines a light on all aspects of an operation.

4. Review ingredients and sizes: New products geared towards lactose intolerant, gluten free, and are sized for correct portion control are increasingly offered as options.

5. Meet with product vendors and discuss new healthy offerings and ask for solutions and ideas.

6. Create a brand—does it make sense to create a separate healthy menu or heading/name for your health line of products?

7. Create a plan for sampling new healthy menu items. Invite health-related clubs, groups and media to taste the new healthy menu.

8. Adjust menu items from customer feedback.

9. Position whatever you’re doing in steps, as part of a process.

Menu for Change: communicating the message

Communicating healthy menu messages can give your brand a marketing advantage and a higher value perception from your customers. Think about this…instead of discounting a menu item, introduce a new menu item that offers a sustainable organic item like a pear salad, and by communicating the message of where the pears came from, how they were grown and processed, it creates a “reason” to pay more and it is perceived as delivering value and pro-health.

When communicating your health message, integrate all customer touch points by: packaging with health messages, website, social media, contest or event, sample healthy menu items, direct mail, signage, kick-off party with employees, employee incentives and guests feedback forms and surveys.