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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2011

Prepare for calorie count sticker shock

BY SHARON BERNSTEIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES

Deborah Jourdan can't stomach the menu at California Pizza Kitchen anymore. But the problem is not the price or the food. It's the calories.

"I looked at the menu, and it said there were 1,100 calories in a plate of pasta," the 22-year-old North Hollywood, Calif., resident said. Salads can run 1,400 calories or more. Pizza? Up to 1,500. That was earlier this year, and she hasn't been back since.

"I don't think I'd go back," said Ms. Jourdan, "because I'd be afraid there would be nothing for me to eat."

It's a scenario that worries restaurateurs. As part of the federal health care overhaul, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to roll out rules by year-end requiring any chain with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for every item they sell.

Chains are scrambling to rework consumer favorites so they have fewer calories, and they are redesigning menus so that high-calorie items are balanced out by more-healthful options.

IHOP took its bacon-and-eggs breakfast, with 1,160 calories, and developed a version with turkey bacon and egg whites that has just 350 calories. Panera Bread Co., worried that customers would balk at sandwiches with more than 1,000 calories, cut back on mayonnaise, salami, and bread.

"We're going into a new era," said Anita Jones-Mueller, a nutrition consultant who works with restaurants to slim down their menu offerings. "Never before have calories been on every chain restaurant menu in the United States. It's a game changer."

Companies that respond quickly with retooled dishes or options for smaller portions, will fare the best, said Steve West, restaurant industry analyst for Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in St. Louis.

"People are going to find that they go to P.F. Chang's and their orange chicken is 1,000 calories, and they're going to be looking for something to trade down to," he said. "That's going to be the big trade-down this year -- not money, calories."

Calorie counts are already required in some parts of the country, including California, New York City, and Philadelphia. Californians may have noticed them come and go at some restaurants, because many counties have put off enforcing the state rules until the release of the federal guidelines.

Many in the industry say they don't expect most customers to cut back much once calorie counts are displayed nationwide. But others say that's partly because there's no way to keep track of customers like Ms. Jourdan, who walk out the door, never to return.

At Real Mex Restaurants Inc., which owns El Torito, Acapulco, and Chevys, officials knew ahead of time they might have what the industry is calling a sticker shock problem and worked hard to mitigate it, said marketing chief Lowell Petrie.

The company switched to lower-fat cheeses, started making some dishes with less oil and sauce, and stopped plopping sour cream on every plate. New menus will highlight half-orders for salads and fajitas, Mr. Petrie said.

Scott Davis led a similar effort at Panera Bread. The company reduced the amount of sauce on its sandwiches, reformulated its soups to reduce fat and sodium, and developed a 300-calorie salad.

"Our goal was to move away from these things that we called 'gotchas' on the menu," items with more than 1,000 calories, said Mr. Davis, Panera's chief concept officer. Panera reworked a breakfast sandwich to have 350 calories instead of 650, and emphasized half-sandwiches, some of which have only 250 calories.

In November the chain became one of the first to roll out menus nationwide with calorie counts prominently displayed. Already, Mr. Davis said, customers are opting more frequently for half-sandwiches with salad or soup.

Nutrition scientists say the few studies conducted so far show most people make modest changes, if any, when confronted with calorie counts on menus. Starbucks customers in New York, for example, reduced their consumption by about 6 percent after the city began requiring calorie information in 2008, according to a Stanford University study.

The overall caloric reduction may not seem like much, but it's a significant change, said Margo Wootan, a nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Averaged over the entire population, "the obesity epidemic is probably explained by about 100 calories per person per day," she said.

Experts don't expect die-hard fast-food addicts to change their behavior much.

"If you're going to a hamburger fast-food chain you are going to have a burger and you're willing to live with a higher calorie count," said Brad Haley, top marketing officer for CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns Carl's Jr. and Hardee's. Still, Carl's Jr. recently put a turkey burger on its menu, and sales are more brisk than expected, he said.

Even McDonald's Corp. has been adding lower-calorie items to its menu, and has a slate of offerings with fewer than 600 calories.

Poised to benefit the most from retooling their menus are restaurants just above the fast-food level, where customers expect to be able to make healthful choices -- and may be shocked if they cannot, industry experts said.

DineEquity Inc., which owns the IHOP and Applebee's chains, spent months developing new items meant to pack a lower caloric punch, said spokesman Patrick Lenow.

IHOP's menu also offers tips on cutting calories, like using sugar-free syrup or skipping the butter.

By contrast, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., famous for its "bottomless" order of fries, has avoided wholesale changes. Instead, the company has mostly relied on customers to modify their own meals. The company offers vegetables, salad, or fruit instead of fries, along with a lower-fat mayonnaise, said spokesman Susan Lintonsmith.

That wasn't enough to keep the sticker shock from a 1,000-calorie burger from stinging Brian Somoza.

The 30-year-old West Hills, Los Angeles, resident said he used to eat at Red Robin several times a month. But he hasn't been back since the calorie counts were posted earlier this year. "Most of their stuff was north of 900 calories," Mr. Somoza said. "We really don't go there at all now."



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