By Quentin Fottrell
Fast-food restaurant’s healthier offerings don’t seem to do much for Americans’ bottoms or the chains’ bottom lines. After all, experts say, customers generally show up for the burgers and fries, not the supersized salads.
But that hasn’t stopped the restaurants from trying to serve up more nutritious fare. Burger King is the latest to join the fray. As part of its plan to once again become a publicly-traded company, Burger King this week introduced one of the biggest menu revamps since the company began in 1954. Its “fresh offers” include strawberry and banana smoothies, Caesar salads and crispy chicken strips. “We found that consumers wanted a broader range of menu options,” Burger King’s North America president Steve Wiborg said in a statement. But history shows such efforts – even when they are relatively successful – do more to improve the brand’s image than its revenues, analysts say. And sometimes, healthy menu items are outright flops.
As for smoothies, though the blended yogurt drinks tend to have higher margins, they are unlikely to ever beat sales of fries, says R.J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar. “Guilty pleasures still carry more weight for consumers,” he says. “But the industry is in a secular decline so it’s looking for new ways to drive traffic.”
Indeed, studies show even the prominent display of nutritional information has had mixed results in changing customer behavior. One 2008 study in the “American Journal of Public Health” said Subway patrons who saw calorie information purchased 52 fewer calories than other patrons. However, another 2011 survey in the “British Medical Journal” said only one-in-six New Yorkers counted calories before making their purchase. One explanation: even the healthy options are not always so healthy, according to Steffie Woolhandler, professor of public health at the City University of New York and visiting professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Frozen yogurt products have as many calories as ice-cream,” she says. Burger King’s new menu, for instance, includes a mocha frappé with caramel sauce (600 calories for a 20-ounce cup).
That said, adding salads and other healthy choice do help fast-food chains appeal to families – if only to get them in the door, experts say. A McDonald’s spokeswoman says the restaurant aims to provide options for all tastes, “whether you want oatmeal or a Big Mac.” But Hottovy says it’s tough to change the consumer’s perception of a fast-food restaurant even with a wider selection on the menu. That’s why KFC’s “Double Down” — two pieces of bacon and cheese smothered by two giant hunks of breaded chicken – was a hit online and in the restaurants, Hottovy says.
The chains’ attempts at healthy fare often don’t do as well. Here are four of the biggest nutritious fast-food flops: