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Restaurant chains can go lean on nutrition details

California laws give them flexibility on how much information to share with diners and where to post it. But starting in 2011, chains will have to include calorie counts on their menus.

November 12, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

Diners at California Pizza Kitchen last week found some enticing new offerings such as white chocolate strawberry cheesecake, Baja-style tacos with sauteed mahi-mahi, and a Moroccan-spiced chicken breast salad.

But gone from the menu are those often-revealing calorie counts that the restaurant has listed for each item since July 1.

The Los Angeles-based pizza and pasta chain dropped that data when it printed new menus last week, in part because customers just didn't like it much.

"You have to look at the restaurant business as entertainment. Why make the customer feel guilty?" said Larry Flax, co-chief executive at CPK. "People kept getting mad" because they didn't understand that a state law mandates that chain restaurants provide this type of information to customers, he said.

The restaurant chain also wanted to gather up all the nutritional facts -- carbs, fat, etc. -- and put it in one place for patrons who ask for the information.

The change highlights the different ways California's chain restaurants are dealing with new and still-evolving rules that dictate how they provide patrons with nutritional information about the food they serve.

Chains such as IHOP and Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar are posting calorie information on their menus. Some Jack in the Box restaurants have the information framed on a wall near the counter. Others are offering the data in brochures kept in a holder on the wall.

Non-chain restaurants -- including the local pizza joint and expensive, white-tablecloth eateries -- are exempt from the rules but may provide the information voluntarily.

When people sit down at a California Pizza Kitchen, they are handed the data-free menu and a menu-like folder that contains detailed nutritional information about the food served by the chain. The chain posts the same nutrition facts online so that patrons in states that don't have menu-labeling laws can still access the information.

Not listing calories on menus is legal, at least for now.

California menu-labeling laws were enacted last year but are being phased in. For now, restaurant chains with 20 or more units can choose between printing calorie counts next to items on their printed menus or menu boards and providing more detailed nutritional information -- such as calories, saturated fat, carbohydrates and sodium -- on brochures either on the table or near the cash register.

Starting in 2011, chain restaurants will have to print calorie information on their menus. So eventually, California Pizza Kitchen will go back to the menu style it just dropped.

"This legislation will help Californians make more informed, healthier choices by making calorie information easily accessible at thousands of restaurants throughout our state," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said when he signed the law last year.

It's no surprise that some restaurants in California are opting to provide nutritional information in a separate brochure instead of on menus, said Cathy Nonas, director of the New York City Health Department's physical activity and nutrition program.

When New York's law went into effect last year, some chains quickly put calorie information on their menus while others didn't. "They had a difficult time," and some of the early adopters went back to their older menus that lacked the information, she said.

"Let's say they had a signature dish that had a lot of calories. They felt they would be at a competitive disadvantage," Nonas said.

It was only after the city started to fine restaurants for not posting the information that all the chains started to comply with the law. And, at that point, the pushback from both restaurants and guilt-trip-avoiding customers subsided. Nonas said she suspects the same will happen in California a year from January, when the laws require chains to post calories on menus.

Whether such labeling laws will lead patrons to make more healthful choices is not clear, restaurants say.

California Pizza Kitchen saw a "small shift in behavior" from high-calorie to lower-calorie items, said Rick Rosenfield, the chain's other chief executive.

IHOP, the pancake chain, prints calorie counts on its menus. So it's hard to miss that an order of chocolate chip pancakes has 610 calories. But that information does not seem to make much difference to what people order, said Patrick Lenow, the chain's spokesman. "We have not seen a significant shift in order patterns."

That's probably because the menu already included a number of "healthful choices and items that are more indulgent," he added.

About a dozen states and local agencies have adopted various forms of menu labeling laws, according to the National Restaurant Assn.

Rules similar to what California will have in 2011 are in several of the health reform bills circulating in Congress and have the support of both the restaurant trade group and consumer organizations. The federal rules would standardize the way in which chain restaurants report the information nationwide.

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