Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Walk the Walk" Watch: Fast Food Chains

An article in today's Wall Street Journal looks at how national restaurant chains have been publishing misleading calorie-count figures for their menu items. ("Calorie Disclosures Fail to Weigh Whole Enchilada" by Carl Bialik). The Scripps television stations did some of its own testing and found, for example, that Taco Bell's steak taco actually had 297 calories, not 160 as the chain claimed, and that its bean burrito had 449 calories, not 330. Applebee's also looked pretty bad in the testing conducted by an independent lab.

No one is claiming that the restaurant chains are cheating: They're playing by the rules, but they're gaming the system: Carl Bialik, who's the Journal's "Numbers Guy" columnist, writes that "many chain restaurants send just one menu item to be tested for their published counts," even though it would be much more accurate to test many samples.

Personally, my guess is that those single submitted samples are probably prepared with a much lighter shmear of mayo, or similarly finessed quantities other high-cal ingredients, than typical servings in the real world. Who's going to flag whether it's a thin or thick layer of mayo, anyway?

In my view it would be so much wiser for the top executives at national restaurant chains to publish accurate calorie counts than to try to get away with intentionally misleading figures. If they walked the walk this way, it would show that they treated their customers with respect. When television stations and newspapers and bloggers exposed the deceptive practices of their rivals, these chains could claim rightly and loudly that they were honest with their patrons. Showing real concern for the health and well-being of their customers could be a way of standing apart in a business that's ruthlessly competitive on price, especially in a recessionary economy. Especially now that we've had some frightening outbreaks of health threats in the food system, often involving chain restaurants, it would be so valuable to build that relationship of trust.

In my surveys of many industries for my upcoming book, "Walk the Walk," I've found that usually only a single company in any business stands apart from the lemming-like behavior with real leadership, which simply involves living up to its words. In this case, the company that walks the walk appears to be Subway. The Journal story reports that the New York City health department surveyed 7,318 customers as they left 275 fast-food restaurants during weekday lunch hours. Although the city requires all fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts, only Subway revealed them "prominently," according to the Journal: "Nearly one-third of Subway's customers reported noticing the nutritional information, compared with fewer than 5% of customers at other chains. Among the Subway customers who spotted the numbers, more than one-third said it affected their orders--and those individuals' meals averaged 99 fewer calories."

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