Pleasing two kinds of customers with whole grains

by Jeff Gelski
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Panera Bread Greek salad with quinoa, whole grains
Panera's Greek salad with quinoa features a quinoa tomato sofrito blend.

ROSEMONT, ILL. — Quick-service restaurants creating whole grain items need to consider two groups: health-seekers and a fast-and-familiar group, said Kelly Toups, director of the Whole Grains Council of Oldways.

Health-seekers want worthy items and convenience, but they also want to feel good about what they eat, Ms. Toups said Sept. 26 in Rosemont at the Whole Grains Council event “Whole Grains in Foodservice, the Next Frontier.”

“Millennials are definitely helping drive this trend,” she said.

Kelly Toups, director of the Whole Grains Council of Oldways
Restaurants might add whole grains to existing menu items slowly and gradually, said Kelly Toups, director of the Whole Grains Council of Oldways.

Offering whole grain options is “preaching to the choir” when it comes to health-seekers, she said.

“If they’re looking for it, and you have it, you’re pretty much good to go,” Ms. Toups said.

The fast-and-familiar group seeks familiar items that are convenient, she said. Health is not their highest priority at a restaurant and might even be a deterrent. Many of these people did not grow up eating ancient grains like quinoa or teff.

Chick-fil-A Egg White Grill, whole grains
The fast-and-familiar group seeks familiar items that are convenient, such as Chick-fil-A's egg white grill, which features a toasted multigrain English muffin.

“So people do not have preconceived notions of what they actually taste like,” Ms. Toups said.

The people in the fast-and-familiar group thus may be willing to try those whole grains since they have no negative perceptions.

Restaurants also have the option of adding whole grains into existing products gradually and quietly. Ms. Toups gave the example of Kraft Heinz taking out artificial colors and flavors out of its macaroni and cheese without promoting the removals. Consumers did not notice, and months later Kraft Heinz called it the world’s largest blind taste test.

Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways
Restaurants are including a good amount of whole grains in products, not just the minimum, said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways. 

While Ms. Toups talked about two different kinds of restaurant customers, Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways, talked about two kinds of restaurants.

Newer restaurant concepts such as Roti, Modern Mediterranean, Lyfe Kitchen, Sweetgreen and Freshii came into existence already offering whole grain options.

“It’s easier for these concepts, frankly,” she said. “They’ve been doing it from day one. Their customers are the ones who expect it.”

Dunkin' Donuts whole wheat bagel, whole grains
A whole wheat bagel at Dunkin’ Donuts has up to 60 grams of whole grains.

Quick-service restaurants with longer histories have introduced whole grain items, too. They include Wendy’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Applebee’s, Panera Bread Co. and Subway. Ms. Harriman said these chains are not adding token amounts of whole grain either. A bagel at Dunkin’ Donuts has up to 60 grams of whole grains, she said.

“Granted, that’s a very large bagel, but it’s not where we’re seeing the minimum: Let’s just get by with some whole grains but really be doing the same-old, same-old,” Ms. Harriman said. “These are some groundbreaking things from some mainstream restaurants.”

She also pointed to a Subway flatbread.

Subway whole grain flatbread, whole grains
Subway's new flatbread option is made of whole wheat, oats, barley, triticale, rye and amaranth.

“This flatbread does not have any refined flour,” Ms. Harriman said. “It has whole wheat, oats, barley, triticale, rye, amaranth … at a Subway. Who knew?”

American consumers may be warming up to the tastes of whole grains. Ms. Harriman pointed to a 2015 Whole Grains Council survey that found 37% of people cited taste as a barrier to eating whole grains but another 40% of people said taste was a reason why they eat whole grains.

“That taste-o-meter has gone from negative to neutral, over to positive,” Ms. Harriman said.
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