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The Up Side of Down Sizing
Restaurants can take a tip from retail brands that offer smaller portions and charge a premium.
Portion control for restaurant chains

Like the slew of retail companies that offer 100-calorie, portion-controlled products to consumers, a handful of quick-serve operators are also jumping on the trend. Boloco, a regional burrito chain based in Boston, drove check averages up about 5 percent in the two outlets where it is testing a mini-size dinner-menu option.

But so far most chains have restrained from such a “better for you” marketing gambit and, in fact, show little inclination to back away from a recession-proof emphasis on volume as value.

“I see no evidence of chains using portion control for positioning, and I’ve traveled all over the country looking at quick serves,” says Elizabeth Howlett, a University of Arkansas marketing professor. Howlett recently co-authored a study in which the main conclusion was that many consumers have a poor understanding of the calorie, fat, and sodium content of quick-serve meals.

Even some chains who could tout new options as health-oriented are refraining from doing so. Burger King is mainly marketing its new Burger Shots, for example, as great for sharing with fellow diners. The Miami-based chain isn’t even mentioning the dietary benefits of consuming fewer calories than in its traditional meals.

Portion-control positioning is rare so far for a few reasons. First, the primary middle- and low-income market for most chains still largely equates ample food with value

“In the quick-serve environment, where quality is not as much of an issue, it costs next to nothing for [chains] to satisfy that criterion,” says James Sinclair, president of OnSite Consulting, a Los Angeles–based firm that serves the hospitality and foodservice industries.

Second, any pioneering chain that promotes a different value equation may have to “do a lot of consumer education,” according to Howlett, to get consumers to think otherwise.

New York City diners may appreciate the mandatory nutrition information on menuboards, but it only provides extra information to influence their decisions—the presence of the data itself doesn’t restrict their options.

Third, the potential margin and cost implications of portion-control initiatives are murkier than it might seem. Brands could arguably boost margins by offering smaller portions and pricing them at a per-ounce premium to regular and large sizes.

“You’re giving customers more choices,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, the Chicago-based foodservice consulting firm.

All these minis are higher-margin items. People are paying a premium for them.”

“But the payoff might not be there because, after all, most consumers say they want salads but they still eat fries. And meanwhile, it’s more difficult for the operator because they have to prepare and deal with more items and more sizes and promote them all.”

But Boloco, with 16 outlets, has been offering mini breakfast burritos for a year and a half with great success. As a result, CEO and co-founder John Pepper is trying mini burritos in other dayparts as well.

“All these minis are higher-margin items,” he says. “People are paying a premium for them, but it’s allowing people not to have to think so hard about whether they really want to go get a Boloco.”

photo courtesy of © / Jill Chen