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Published: Tuesday, 11/8/2011

Taste of the future: Menus offer options, ingredients

LOS ANGELES TIMES
Stickers to mark food as gluten-free rest on a plate next to a cup for organic sauce at a P.F. Chang’s. The chain offers customized vegetarian menus as well as kosher items. Stickers to mark food as gluten-free rest on a plate next to a cup for organic sauce at a P.F. Chang’s. The chain offers customized vegetarian menus as well as kosher items.
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LOS ANGELES — Wendy’s has a gluten-free menu. Dunkin’ Donuts offers kosher meals at dozens of sites. Chipotle Mexican Grill is letting customers know it uses bacon in preparing its pinto beans.

Americans are craving more information about the food they are served, and fast-food companies, as well as casual restaurants, are updating signs and menus for diet-conscious customers and highlighting potential problems for those with allergies or other dietary restrictions.

“If you can demonstrate to families that you can offer them a safe meal, you establish a tremendous sense of loyalty and create repeat customers,” said Chris Weiss, a vice president at the nonprofit Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

Healthful eating is at the forefront of the food industry.

California and New York City require large chains to disclose calorie counts for each meal, and similar federal rules are coming next year.

Adding another layer of information is a natural progression, industry experts said, especially for restaurants eager to woo the growing number of customers who aren’t eating beef burgers or can’t eat food cooked in peanut oil.

Some diners carry special cards listing which foods they must avoid. But following those instructions has been difficult at fast-food and fast-casual establishments, where the ingredients are often a mystery.

Subway maintains several kosher restaurants, including this one in Los Angeles. Subway maintains several kosher restaurants, including this one in Los Angeles.
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After nonpork eaters complained this summer, Chipotle started redesigning its menu boards to say that bacon is used in its pinto beans.

Panda Express, accused in a lawsuit of using chicken powder in meat-free dishes, now has posters in all stores explaining that none of its offerings is vegetarian.

P.F. Chang’s prints, on request, customized menus for customers who may be vegetarians, need kosher meals, or want to avoid up to 11 potential allergens.

Subway maintains several kosher restaurants in the United States and about 100 halal locations for Muslims in Britain. All are identified by posted signs.

Analysts said consumers over the next year will probably see a spurt in diet-sensitive menus and signs as companies try to attract vegetarians and others with diet limitations — a population often perceived as having more discretionary income to spend.

“It’s not that they’re benevolent companies; it’s that they feel that they can drive traffic by giving out more detailed information,” analyst Nick Setyan at Wedbush Securities Inc. said. “It’s a way to market themselves and differentiate themselves from the competition.”



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