By now, most members of the restaurant industry have heard of both the U.S. Healthful Foods Council and its program, Responsible Epicurean Agricultural Leadership, or REAL.
The council has certified hundreds of restaurant brands nationwide that live up to its high standards for sustainable sourcing, environmentally sound practices, and healthful menus.
Additionally, the council is entering the second renewal period in a contract with the state of Tennessee to help restaurants there implement healthful change in an effort to curb climbing numbers of nutrition-related health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
"We have over 80 restaurants now in Tennessee that are REAL-certified now," said Tennessee program manager Nikkole Turner. "[W]e've just started taking the [state] parks through our certification, too, and we have several communities that have signed on for REAL certification. Another big example, as far as ability to influence the market is concerned, is that we've awarded REAL certification to the first convention center in the nation, right in Nashville, at the Music City Center."
It sounds good, but what does it take to live up to REAL standards? And is it truly worth the investment of time and money to undertake the certification process?
The REAL need
For answers to these questions, we went straight to the source — brands that have earned REAL certification. And we learned from them that certification does, indeed, require a heck of a lot of work.
We also learned that certification is practically a business imperative today given consumer demands for products and practices that are healthful and sustainable, as well as for proof of the same.
"Most of the restaurant industry has evolved on making food as palatable as possible," said USHFC Chairman and CEO Lawrence Williams. "But now people are starting to say that it is not just how I feel when I'm eating the dish, but it's how I feel afterwards. …
"But, when the industry is as competitive as it is — I would say maybe the most competitive industry on the planet — the margins are driven very low and there can be very perverse incentives to cut costs at every corner. But at the end of the day, the reason we've found that restaurants go through [REAL certification] is because of what's in it for them. And our goal is ultimately to put butts in seats. ... So for their investment of time, we want to give them a positive return on their investment."
In addition to Williams, plenty of organizations and studies have noted the healthful-and-sustainable trend overtaking the restaurant industry. In fact, the National Restaurant Association has placed it at the top of its restaurant trends list for the past 10 years.
But if American consumers are feeling a greater drive toward healthfulness and sustainability, they are also coming up shorter on the time required to act on their inclinations.
In July, the USDA released the results of a 12-year study investigating the nation's growing dependence on convenience foods and restaurant meals. Even the researchers were surprised to find that nearly half of the average American's annual food budget is spent on meals out — a greater proportion than at any other point in the nation's history.
At the same time, Americans are less willing than ever to sacrifice their health or their ethical beliefs about food sourcing in the interests of expedience.
The need for restaurants not only to move to more healthful menus, but also to prove to their customers that they have done so is underscored by findings that:
Perhaps the long-term impact of obtaining REAL certification is best summed up by one restaurateur who has gone through the certification process, and whose restaurants now proudly claim REAL status.
Bareburger CEO Euripedes Pelekanos (pictured at right) said simply:
For Bareburger, being REAL-certified is like getting to shout our mission from a mountain. Our crew hustles everyday to serve fresh, organic and delicious food. We're basically just a bunch of food nerds trying to change the world one burger and crop bowl at a time, and that can be harder than it sounds.
REAL supports the crazy passion we have for our partners, purveyors and farmers ... celebrates our wacky proteins and ever-changing crops ... acknowledges our place in the industry as that loud-mouthed change-maker. REAL is the bridge between the food system and the people it serves. It's like telling restaurant goers: 'Hey! Look what these guys are doing! It's pretty awesome and important!'
In the second part of this report tomorrow, we'll talk with other REAL-certified restaurant operators in order gain a better understanding of what's involved in the certification process and what its payoffs can be.