ST. HELENA, Calif. —  Value may be the undeniable trend in eating out in recent years, but the movement toward healthier choices on menus is making its mark on the industry.

Dawn Sweeney, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, was a speaker at the Worlds of Healthy Flavors and the Produce First! conferences at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone Jan. 20-24. She, along with the conference’s hosts and other speakers, had a big ticket in front of them, trying to inspire foodservice operators to head down a path that can lead to failure more often than success by developing and incorporating more healthful dishes in their offerings.

Value, healthful eating trends merging

Ashley Bentley

Suvir Saran, chef of Devi restaurant in New York and cookbook author, talks to David Gancy, president of Trademark Foods Inc., Pittsburgh, about a dish teh two prepared during the Produce First! conference at the Culinary Institute of America. Trademark Foods manages seven foodservice outlets in Pittsburgh, including Carnegie-Mellon University and Red Oak Cafe.

“Your customers don’t always demand and still sometimes don’t request these kinds of healthy items we’re talking about here,” Sweeney said to the 100-plus attendees of Worlds of healthy Flavors. “But what we’re seeing is customers want the choice.”

The trend is something the association is taking seriously, though, participating in an initiative with the Produce Marketing Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association to double fresh produce use in restaurants by 2020, and also working with first lady Michelle Obama on her upcoming plans to fight childhood obesity.

Although Boston-based Chicago Uno’s is in hot water right now, filing for Ch. 11 bankruptcy Jan. 20, the restaurant’s efforts to improve the healthful qualities of its food sets an industry standard, Sweeney said.

“Our concept is very strong, largely due to our health and nutrition initiatives,” Chris Gratto, vice president of food and beverage, said.

One concept that’s been working for New Haven, Conn.-based Yale Dining is offering more healthful items alongside less nutritious, but more common, choices.

“Right next to every soda machine, we have a big container with fruits,” said Rafi Taherian, executive director for Yale Dining. “It’s been very popular since we started it about three years ago.”

At many of the schools cafeterias Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo operates, students are given the option at any station to have their meal served “The Balanced Way,” in which the portions of the protein are smaller, and the portions of “good” carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables are larger on the plate.

“College students aren’t talking about calories, they’re talking about fresh,” said Rox-anne Moore, wellness director for Sodexo. “They want quality.”

Freshness is what customers of Dallas-based Brinker International’s Chili’s restaurants are demanding, too, said Jody Johnson, senior director of culinary operations. The chain rolled out a new menu the week of Jan. 25.

“Our customers are really interested in fresh food, and flavors are still what they’re going to buy,” Johnson said. “Our new menu has salads in two different sizes and options of taking out the fried wonton strips, using a different dressing.”

Operators at the conference seemed to agree that consumer preference was the obstacle in the way of healthier menus overall.

“It is top of mind. It’s no longer back of mind,” said Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary innovation for McDonalds Corp., Oak Brook, Ill. “We’re look at portion size, but we’re also looking at the demand side of it. Our customers know exactly how many pennies they have in their pockets, and how many calories can I get for that?”

Coudreaut said he didn’t want to create healthy options that don’t sell. The chain’s salads, he said, sell to a different consumer than the chain’s core.

Fast feeders buck trend

“Maybe in fast casual and fine dining they’re choosing healthier, but not in QSR,” said Christina Bongo, director of new product development for Yum! Restaurants International.

Bongo said the company’s Taco Bell restaurants have been throwing away a lot of food developed to be more healthful because their customers won’t eat it.

“There’s a segment of our population who view value in terms of quality,” Sweeney said. “The more calories per dollar, the better. So there’s huge consumer education that needs to be done about this.”