Commentary: A restaurateur’s opinion on mandated menu labeling

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed its sweeping health care reform bill in March, many in the restaurant industry – including the National Restaurant Association, applauded the bill’s provision that requires  calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, menu boards, and drive-thru displays.

The legislation applies to chains with 20 or more outlets and will be enacted beginning in 2011.

Menu labeling certainly isn’t a new concept. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) began pressing for labeling in 2003. New York City’s Board of Health issued the regulations in 2006, and California followed suit in 2008.

Still, as with any new legislation, there are plenty of naysayers. Some think the changes will cost too much to implement, others think nutritional information is already plenty-available. A handful believe the law is overreaching, while other detractors think the effort is too small to combat a growing obesity epidemic. A few restaurateurs may even be apprehensive to publish nutritional information of some of their items due to high caloric or fat content.

But naysayers aside, there are plenty of industry insiders welcoming the change. One such player is Jeff Sinelli, founder and chief vibe officer of Which Wich and founder of Burguesa Burger.

Sinelli shared his thoughts about how the impending legislation will affect his business – and the restaurant industry – for the better, but also cautions against relying solely on the industry to provide nutritional education:

At Which Wich, we are not opposed to publishing nutritional information. This isn’t a new issue for us; as we started to develop nationally, we had to deal with city and county requirements surrounding menu labeling, and most were way ahead of this curve.

Although the menu analysis cost us close to $20,000, it was worth every penny because we learned a lot along the way. We’re proud to say that more than 10 of our sandwiches are considered healthy dining options, which opened up marketing opportunities for us. We can now play to those strengths.

That said, most restaurateurs are opposed to sharing nutritional information about their menus because it exposes hard facts about the food, which aren’t always positive. And, yes, it can take away the guilty pleasure often associated with dining out.

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I’ve received e-mails, requesting the number of calories in La Monumental, the signature burger at Burguesa Burger. My response to a question like that is – “If you have to ask, then you shouldn’t be eating it.”

Ultimately, it has to be the consumer’s responsibility to make good choices. Do we as restaurant operators play a role in that decision-making? Absolutely. We should provide our ingredients and certain information about our menu items so every guest can make an informed decision.

However, it’s not up to the restaurant industry to educate consumers about what they eat. The government can’t expect restaurants to teach the public about food science and nutrition.

The truth is, in this country, we’ve got an epidemic on our hands. The majority of our population is overweight. It doesn’t matter who’s to blame. What does matter is how we all play our parts to fix it. Because the government has put restaurants in the middle, we’ll play that middle role and provide information about our menus.

Menu labeling raises the consciousness of restaurant operators and developers, which can only bring about positive change. We can provide healthier menu options to cater to those who need them.

We’re about to start testing salads at Which Wich to provide some variety and new, healthier options for our guests, and we’ve been working with healthydining.com. But, ultimately, we also believe in balance—and that means a well-rounded menu that includes indulgences, too.

On a personal note, I’ve taken a renewed interest in my own health, and I believe in the mantra of personal responsibility. This year I’ve lost almost 50 pounds, so I hope to be a positive role model in this way.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to teach people about nutrition and how to take responsibility for what they eat. Parents, schools, government—all have a crucial role in this education. The restaurant industry is willing to do its share, but let’s not put the entire burden on us.

Jeff Sinelli is founder and chief vibe officer of Which Wich and founder of Burguesa Burger. On Wednesday, QSRweb.com will run more commentary regarding menu labeling from a marketing and promotions standpoint.

 

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