Over the years, a number of astute industry observers have warned operators that they are losing sales by declining to put items on their menus that they consider "fads." Even supposing the skeptics to be correct and the item falls out of favor after six months, somebody can be selling a whole lot of it in the meanwhile.
By the same token, we suspect that some operators have been reluctant to get involved with so-called "healthy" products because they do not think the products they sell now are unhealthy, and they are loyalists. We certainly can understand and sympathize with that view.
Others object, reasonably, that different groups appear to have widely divergent views on just what a "healthy" product is: high in fiber, low in fat, baked not fried, natural, organic, free of genetically modified organisms, gluten-free, and so on and on. Given the public's apparently insatiable appetite for news of deadly perils and marvelous panaceas, it is not surprising that there are steadily shifting lists of Good and Bad foods and food ingredients, which further confuses the matter. So even operators who recognize that there is money to be made by staying up to the minute on "healthy food" trends may find it difficult to design menus that will appeal to the varying tastes of their clienteles.
We think a couple of points need to be made. First, there are foods that are perfectly nutritious and wholesome, but that some people cannot consume because of allergies, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, diabetes and other medical conditions. To someone with a peanut allergy, anything containing peanuts is unhealthy. Second, there are foods which are claimed to make up for deficiencies and excesses in the contemporary diet by increasing and decreasing certain ingredients. And third, there are foods which are claimed to be "healthier" because of the manner in which they are grown and/or processed.
Set aside, for the moment, the objection that there really is no "contemporary diet," but rather millions of contemporary diets, and one really can't say that a given individual will benefit from less sugar and fat, or more fiber and potassium (or whatever) without first determining that individual's particular diet. The counterargument is that if more people than not are consuming too much or too little of something, then public policy requires that access to those things be restricted or augmented. And those who will not benefit from, or actually may suffer from, those artifices can use their own initiative to meet their specific needs.
Setting that aside, then, the question is whether the principles of category management can be applied to differentiating among the items to be included in "healthy" menus, and determining the proportion of each category in the menu mix.
A good starting-point in this endeavor is the National Automatic Merchandising Association's "Fit Pick" system, which offers operators a straightforward way to find products that conform to either of two widely adopted dietary guidelines, and to call attention to these items in the machine.
We would like to see more discussion about categories and "better-for-you" selections. Common sense suggests that the existing product categories can serve as the structure for "healthier" menus, while at the same time continuing to offer sufficient variety to appeal to the widest number of consumers.
The simplest approach to menu redesign, then, might be to take each of the categories now present on the menu ("cookies," for example) and, according to the number of specific items or SKUs in it, try replacing one or a few with similar "healthier" alternatives. The best way probably would be to take the slowest-moving items in each category and try replacing them with a nutritional-guideline-compliant equivalent -- and be sure to call attention to the substitution.
Depending on the market area, it might be worth looking into a further refinement. The particular "healthiness" of each alternate selection in each category might vary according to the market or the location demographics. If this were done, it probably would be best to do it in the context of an expanded marketing program. The operator could present those alternative menus as part of a new-account proposal, or during the periodic meetings with existing clients. Operators might enlist the support of their suppliers to organize sampling sessions, perhaps as part of a customer appreciation day, to acquaint location personnel with the more diverse range of products being offered.
Obviously, some market testing is needed here, but the overall approach is worth keeping in mind. Even a decade ago, the idea of planogramming by individual account was considered a nightmare by most operators. Today's management information and telecommunications systems make it manageable; it might well prove very profitable, too.
For decades now, we have been confident that the public will come to its senses. We have not lost hope. But there is no reason to lose sales while we wait.