Food industry adapts to health-conscious consumers

When it comes to appealing to customers, there is a lot that businesses in the hospitality and restaurant industries must take into account. People dine out for a number of reasons – some will patronize a restaurant to impress a new date, as a meeting point to catch up with friends or simply to grab a quick meal while on the go. It can be challenging to appeal to the many different types of diners and meet their varying levels of need without alienating another part of the available market.

One of the latest consumer trends that businesses are trying to adapt to is a focus on "clean" eating. Many restaurants across the country are working to incorporate healthy foods on their menus as the public tries to avoid meals with empty calories, chemical preservatives and little nutrition.

For most, it comes down to options. Many consumers still love to use a trip to a restaurant as a way to indulge and treat themselves to a meal without worrying about the calorie count, while others want to be aware of the quality of their food at all times. As a result, businesses in the food industry are working to increase the kind of choices that customers have to appeal to both sides of the health-food craze.

"Kids menus in particular are being overhauled."

Changing the way people think about fast food
The fast food industry is one of the biggest sectors being impacted by consumer demand for healthier options. For years, the crux of the fast food industry was convenience. Customers would approach the counters, place their orders and be handed a meal that was already sitting and waiting for them underneath a heat lamp. Over the years as consumers had more options, they began to demand an increase in the quality of their food, but did not want to sacrifice costs or convenience to have it.

The fast food industry has carefully adapted over time to strike the balance between quick, affordable and tasty. To achieve this, foods are often fried for quick heating, while salt and other flavor enhancers become essential ingredients. As studies come out that address the health risks associated with diets heavy on fats, sodium and preservatives, however, elements that are common in fast food meals, consumer demands are shifting to call for healthier options on their favorite fast food menus.

Chains adapt with new menus
According to International Business Times, the fast food chicken chain Chick-Fil-A will unveil a new side item to replace their creamy coleslaw – a chopped kale and broccoli side salad in late January 2016.

"The Superfood Side is not something you would expect to see at a fast-food restaurant, and we're thrilled to kick off 2016 with something that can help people stick to their New Year's resolutions to eat healthfully," said David Farmer, vice president of menu strategy and development at Chick-Fil-A.

In recent years, the restaurant has also put a focus on their grilled chicken options for customers who don't want the traditional fried chicken sandwiches, and added multigrain buns as well.

Competitors have felt the pressure to adapt their menus, too. McDonald's is promoting its "Favorites Under 400" items to let consumers pick from their lowest-calorie options. Wendy's unveiled a new line of specialty salads. Subway spent years trying to tout itself as the low-fat alternative to other chains. Across the market, fast food restaurants are working to promote themselves as a healthier choice than their competitors.

Fast food chains are trying to change their reputations for only serving unhealthy meals.Fast food chains are trying to change their reputations for only serving unhealthy meals.

Healthy eating at traditional restaurants
It's not just fast food restaurants that are working to make these changes, however. Traditional restaurants are trying to respond to the more health-conscious consumer by adding calorie counts to their menus to help diners make more informed decisions. Diners have more options when it comes to picking portion sizes or making substitutions to plates that incorporate healthier foods. 

Kids' menus in particular are being overhauled as businesses try to lower amounts of sugar and fats. ABC News reported in December 2015 that Applebee's and IHOP became two more chains that will no longer offer soda on their kids' menus, for example. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of American children are overweight or obese, and restaurants are working to combat parental concerns with these healthier options.

Restaurants of any kind that want to win over consumers must consider the healthy options they are making available.

Hospitality and restaurant industry piece brought to you by Marlin Equipment Finance, a nationwide provider of commercial lending solutions for small and mid-size businesses. Marlin's equipment financing and loan products are offered directly to businesses, and through third party vendor programs, which include manufacturers, distributors, independent dealers and brokers in the security, food services, healthcare, information technology, office technology and telecommunications sectors.