Nutritionists from nearly 40 restaurant chains and contract management companies gathered in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in mid-March for the National Restaurant Association’s annual Nutrition Executive Study Group conference. The conference covered everything from menu labeling to allergens. Dietitians and nutritionists at restaurant companies share unique challenges and appreciate the chance to swap insights and best practices.

Some top takeaways:

1. Excel tricks blow 'em away

Attendees heard about some incredible -- and apparently lesser-known -- Excel functions that let them search for and identify menu items in their databases by very specific criteria. The search functions come in especially handy now that federal menu labeling regs – in effect since May 7, 2018 – are now being officially enforced (as of May 7, 2019). The functions (or Excel formulas) let you immediately identify such things as

  • data discrepancies (for example, if saturated fat comes in at a higher value for an item in your database than total fat—that’s a mistake)
  • the presence of any and all allergens (by any of their many names)
  • items that meet a low-calorie or low-sodium target (such as <600 calories)
  • and any other value you need to find, no matter how large the database you’re searching.

Introduced by presenter Paige Einstein, director of nutrition, Syndigo/Nutritionix, the Excel functions were eye-opening for attendees, even restaurant dietitians/nutritionists who say they’re fairly Excel-savvy. Einstein kindly shares the best of her “hacks” here.

2. Create special menus

Can guests search your menus to find selections that fit their special dietary needs? The more you can slice and dice your menu information to find options, the better you look, the more loyal they become and the more you sell. Many restaurant companies at the conference say they pull information into special menus, the most popular of which are gluten-free, allergen-free, vegetarian and vegan, and low-calorie.

3. What's in a name?

If a menu item is marketed as good for you in some way, it’s often a trigger for consumers to like it less, according to information shared by Jack Bobo, vice president of government affairs, Intrexon, the keynoter on opening day of the conference.

How you name menu items matters.

He cited a case study from the Better Buying Lab, a Washington, D.C., organization that develops cutting-edge strategies to enable and encourage consumers to buy and consume what the organization considers “more sustainable foods.” The group showed how taking the words “vegetarian” and “low-fat” out of the name of a restaurant brand’s black bean soup -- and renaming it Cuban Black Bean Soup -- resulted in a 13 percent increase in sales.

4. Mock run-through reveals menu-information holes

To get ready for federal menu-labeling requirements and enforcement, Sean Landrum, culinary research and development director, Pizza Ranch, Orange, City, Iowa, says colleagues at his 200+-location fast-casual pizza company set up a mock menu-labeling/customer inquiry scenario.

To keep Landrum on top of his game, Landrum’s senior brand manager planned out the mock “test run” with the company’s social media manager. The social manager sent Landrum a message saying a guest was questioning the nutrition data listed on the menu board for the restaurant’s pizza sauce. (According to the Food and Drug Administration’s menu-labeling regulations, restaurants and similar retail food establishments must provide to the FDA – upon request and within a reasonable period of time (four to six weeks) -- certain documentation on nutrition content, including how the restaurant came up and verifies its nutrition data.)

“The mock scenario was an eye-opener because even though I had listed the required information on the sauce, I found out I was missing some vital recipe information from our sauce company that I needed in order to verify the nutrition information. I messaged the manufacturer, told them the situation, and within 24 hours, I got all the recipe info and all ingredient data as well. It was a great exercise.”

While the company wasn’t obligated to answer the customer’s inquiry, it would have been if that customer pursued the inquiry through the FDA. Landrum was able to prove to himself and the company -- through the mock scenario -- that he knew what steps to take to ensure he has access to the information he’ll need.

5. Make sure your nutrition info is available in written form on premises

In addition to the new labeling requirements for standard menu items (on menus, menu boards, signs adjacent to self-service foods and foods on display), the Food and Drug Administration requires that certain nutrition information also has to be available on the premises in written form to give to guests on request. Your employees can’t direct customers to look up information online, for example.

A section on page 138 of the Federal Register. Food Labeling: Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items In Restaurants And Similar Retail Food Establishments outlines details: