Damned if they don’t, damned if they do’


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Spare a thought for fast food operators, notably in the US. For the past few years, they have been drawn into the nation’s well-publicised ‘battle against the bulge’. Increasingly, health practitioners accused them of killing off the nation by feeding it with unhealthy food.

The sector’s protestations to the effect that all they were doing is respond to customers’ demands fell on deaf ears. At one stage some two years ago, some of the most famous brands even found themselves at the receiving end of lawsuits along the lines of those waged against the tobacco companies in the past.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed and these law suits never really got off the ground. A higher court branded the notion that fast food vendors could be held responsible for individuals’ overindulgence as ridiculous and put a stop to any claims of this nature.

However, although they were off the hook as far as legal liability was concerned, fast food vendors were far from happy. Concerned about loss of reputation within the communities they serve, they did not want to be seen as the bad guys, even if only by implication.

Nutritionists and chefs were recruited en masse and instructed to design new and healthier menu options, with salads, raw vegetables and natural fruit juices playing a more prominent role. Recent reports suggest that these well-meant moves elicited a consumer backlash that terrified the sector.

It emerged that those chains that had given in to demands for healthier options, reduced fat content and smaller portion sizes suffered an alarming drop in sales. Researchers told them that this had nothing to do with a shift towards healthier home-cooked meals but everything with a mass migration to those chains that continued to serve up large portions of food that ‘tasted good’, even if it should have been obvious to any reasonable person that eating the stuff would play havoc with their cholesterol levels.

So, what is a fast food vendor to do? The answer is staring us in the face: give your customers a choice! Educate them about healthy eating habits by all means but don’t force them to change, they will simply go elsewhere.

As USA Today reports, some company canteens have gone this route and initial reports are encouraging.

One canteen manager is quoted as saying that while in the past, they used to offer free access to an unlimited supply of doughnuts, biscuits and greasy potato chips throughout break rooms these have now been replaced by offerings of fresh fruit and raw vegetables. However, those who insist on their right to unhealthy choices can feed their desire by ordering whatever they want from the canteen counter.

Another staff canteen offers a wide variety of menu choices, with the company subsidising the healthier options by up to 40%.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the local market. Seeing that South Africa (and the rest of the world) tend to follow US trends, it will reach our shores sooner rather than later. Those operators who monitor trends and adopt a pro-active stance towards changes in consumer demand will be tomorrow’s winners.

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