Three out of four adults are trying to eat healthier in restaurants than they were two years ago, according the National Restaurant Association. Yet most quick-serves have come out hard against proposed legislation to require them to provide nutrition information on their menus that many say would allow patrons to do so.
But one man thinks he might have found a way to allow restaurants to provide information about the nutritional content of their food accurately, on their own terms, and in a format consumers find helpful.
Jay Ferro developed Nutricate, a technology solution that prints personalized nutrition information on sales receipts, in 2004. Initially, Nutricate was positioned as a wellness company geared toward foodservice operations in hospitals and workplaces, but Ferro, a founding partner in Santa Barbara–based fast-casual Silvergreens, soon realized the potential it held for the quick-service industry.
"Consumers care more about what they're putting in their bodies, and restaurants care about what they're putting on the menu," Ferro says. "We see this as being a viable win-win."
The Nutricate System works through what the company calls a Receipt Interceptor Computer (RIC), which sits beneath a restaurant's existing point-of-sale (POS) thermal printer. Operators input information about the nutritional content of their food—calories, fat, carbohydrate, and protein—into a Web site. When an order is placed through the POS, the RIC appends the information corresponding to the items in the order and reformats the receipt to include it in a grid on the back. It can even separate between two meals in the same order.
But why would restaurants, which have come out strong against efforts to mandate menu-labeling in the past, willingly provide this information on the back of a receipt?
For starters, Ferro says they'll be doing it on their own terms. Operators can choose which, if any, of the nutrition categories to include on the receipt.
"If you want to just print calories, you can do that," he says. "We're not trying to embarrass a restaurant. We're giving them an opportunity to communicate with their customers and explain the choices."
Ferro says Nutricate also addresses one of the main problems restaurateurs have with menu labeling laws, such as the one enacted in New York City earlier this year, that require caloric content to be posted on menuboards.
"Seventy percent of orders are customized, so 70 percent of the time those [labels] are misleading or wrong," Ferro says. Nutricate, on the other hand, accounts for such changes and reflects them in the totals. So if a customer orders a sandwich without cheese, the proper amount of calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates are subtracted.
But Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that advocates for nutrition labeling in restaurants, says Nutricate should not be considered a substitute for printing nutrition information on menus and menu boards.
"The biggest thing is that you don't get the information until after you order, and by then it's too late," she says. "I think as a supplement to menu labeling, it would be fine."
Providing information alone, however, will not change eating behavior, Ferro says. With that in mind, Nutricate also gives users the option to print "Did you know" statements along with nutrition information. For instance, an example on the company's Web site reads, "We have many options for sides. For example, choosing fruit salad instead of fries can save you 275 calories and 18 grams of fat."
That combination of information and education can have an impact, Ferro says.
One study conducted by Silvergreens in conjunction with Nutricate and the University of California at Santa Barbara Department of Economics found that 63 percent of respondents said the Nutricate receipt had some impact on what they ordered at their next visit. Brian Rocha, general manager of a Silvergreens in Santa Barbara, California, says since installing the Nutricate System in 2006, he's noticed customers making healthier choices.
"There's definitely been an increase in substituting grilled for crispy chicken in salads and customers subtracting mayo from sandwiches," he says.
Eric Simon, an area developer for sandwich concept Extreme Pita in southern California, says Nutricate, which has been in place at one of his stores for about two years, has been a draw for customers, especially people following Weight Watchers or other special diets.
"They come in specifically for it," he says.
Simon admits that although Nutricate is a good fit for his concept, which focuses on healthy options, it might not work for every quick-serve.
"You're not going to want to see what a Double Whopper is because you're not going to have enough receipt tape to put on the calories," he jokes.
But Nutricate also gives operators the chance to print coupons on receipts.
"It's almost like a loyalty program," Simon says. "That coupon plus the calorie content and all the health info—it's a good receipt they keep."