Would you eat 2,900-calorie cheese fries?

More cities are requiring restaurants to tell customers how much fat is in that burger. Smart business owners are embracing the trend.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all CNNMoney.com RSS FEEDS (close)

9 forbidden foods 9 forbidden foods 9 forbidden foods
Government agencies have outlawed these forbidden foods, but epicures love them. Here's what restaurateurs and other business owners around the U.S. have to say about culinary contraband.
I consider my current health care plan to be ...
  • Extremely reliable
  • Shaky at best
  • Not worth my money

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Driven by curiosity and customer demand, Marc Geman, CEO of the Spicy Pickle restaurant chain, sent 30 of his top-selling dishes to a testing lab for nutritional analysis. It cost him about $2,500, but he learned everything about each dish, from calories to sodium content, which he then posted on the Spicy Pickle website.

"It was expensive to do, especially for a small business like us," says Geman, whose Denver-based company of six stores and 30 franchises pulled in about $20 million last year. "But I understand that people want to know what they're eating."

Geman is one of a growing number of restaurateurs embracing nutritional disclosure - before the government demands it. To fight an obesity epidemic, dozens of cities and states are considering laws that mandate the posting of nutritional information on menu boards. Officials are targeting chains, because according to a study by market research firm NPD Group, that's where Americans eat 64% of their restaurant meals.

Early adopters include New York City, where a judge recently enforced the hotly-contested law; San Francisco, whose laws take effect in the fall; and King County (Seattle), Wash., which will make changes Jan. 1.

On a national level, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, reintroduced legislation in March mandating that chains with at least 20 locations disclose calories, fat, and sodium on menus. While the various laws and proposals differ, most demand that chains with at least 15 restaurants display a calorie count for each dish (including the 2,900-calorie cheese fries at Outback Steakhouse) on or next to menu boards, and post more extensive information elsewhere in the restaurant. Sit-down chains must insert the information into individual menus.

Getting and posting nutritional information isn't cheap, but it's not prohibitively costly either. Beyond the testing fee, Geman estimates that it will cost him and his franchise owners about $5,000 a restaurant to redo the menu boards. But he and other smart owners of small restaurant chains are embracing disclosure as a marketing tool and as a way to discourage officials from outright bans on certain foods and ingredients. (New York City's trans-fat prohibition takes effect in July; Maryland may mimic Chicago's ban on the sale of foie gras.)

These owners also see disclosure as a way to get on the right side of customers. A survey by food services giant Aramark found that 83% of diners want restaurants to make nutritional information available.

"We've seen a jump in orders not only because of the laws but because more restaurants are getting requests from consumers for the nutritional composition," says Erica Bohm, a vice president at Healthy Dining, based in San Diego, which charges $150 for a software-based nutritional analysis of a plate of food. (Lab studies cost $600 to $800.) Bohm estimates that in the past two years requests for software analysis have risen 50%.

Reflecting the view of most industry groups, Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association's New York City office, derides the disclosure laws as cumbersome micromanagement of small businesses. And, he adds, "14 years ago the FDA started requiring nutritional information on goods to be eaten in the home. Has that addressed obesity?"

Maybe not, but more consumers are demanding the ability to make informed choices in restaurants. And for both diners and business owners, laws requiring disclosure are far better than the alternative: nanny-state restrictions on what can be served.

For restaurant owners looking to the future, the smart move is to accept the inevitable and try to soften the laws' harsh edges. The National Restaurant Association is advocating more flexibility in sign requirements, and Washington State's restaurant association negotiated raising the minimum chain size from ten to 15 and allowing restaurants to post calories on signs near menu boards.

"Once we got the ordinance changed, I think people's comfort level rose," says Trent House, WRA's director of government affairs.

The Original SoupMan - a 32-location chain based on the Seinfeld Soup Nazi character - is embracing disclosure as a way to differentiate itself in a saturated market.

"We're for it," says president Bob Bertrand, who has paid around $10,000 to have his 40 soups analyzed. "If people see that our nutritionals are better than another fast food, we think that can be good for us."  To top of page

Think the labelling requirements are a good move? Have your say.

9 forbidden foods: Government agencies have outlawed these forbidden foods, but epicures love them.

Popeyes 'Famous' creator Al Copeland dies

Lunch-hour liposuction

Tips for promoting a new restaurant
To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.

They're hiring!These Fortune 100 employers have at least 350 openings each. What are they looking for in a new hire? More
If the Fortune 500 were a country...It would be the world's second-biggest economy. See how big companies' sales stack up against GDP over the past decade. More
Sponsored By:
10 of the most luxurious airline amenity kits When it comes to in-flight pampering, the amenity kits offered by these 10 airlines are the ultimate in luxury More
7 startups that want to improve your mental health From a text therapy platform to apps that push you reminders to breathe, these self-care startups offer help on a daily basis or in times of need. More
5 radical technologies that will change how you get to work From Uber's flying cars to the Hyperloop, these are some of the neatest transportation concepts in the works today. More


Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.