Sunday, October 22, 2006

Restaurant Portion Size Increases Are Mostly The Consumer's Fault

Hunka, hunka burning portion sizes are served at restaurants

We are in quite a precarious position here in the United States.

On the one hand, millions upon millions of people are either actively pursuing or need to be doing something about their weight for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is to prevent the onset of diet-related diseases which science is confirming more and more of lately and much more research is on the way.

At the same time, we have the restaurant industry feeling the pressure from consumers and their fierce competition to offer large enough portion sizes for the money being spent which has resulted in astronomical increases in portion sizes to keep up with the consumer demand.

And this USA Today article about the results of a new survey of restaurant chefs released on Saturday at the Annual Meeting of the Obesity Society confirms this fact.

Conducted by the NPD Group along with researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the South Carolina-based Clemson University, 300 restaurant chefs were surveyed to determine whether they are aware of the larger portion sizes and calories they are serving to the public.

Here are the major findings of the survey:

- Food portion sizes are 2-4 times larger at restaurants
- Restaurants believe consumers WANT lots of food on their plate
- Meals served at restaurants have at least 60% more calories
- Americans ate 209 meals each away from home in 2005
- Portion sizes have steadily grown since the 1970s
- Chefs know the larger portions they serve are unhealthy
- Restaurants expect people to eat most or all of the food served
- Over three-fourths of the chefs think their portions are "regular"
- Less than one-fifth of them think portions are bigger
- 58% believe people should eat until they are full and no more
- 86% state diners would notice if the portions were reduced by 25%
- Nearly 60% said diners would not notice a 10-15% portion reduction

Of course, all of these statistics from restaurant chefs will be used to argue that restaurants should cut back on their portions and calories. You know another wave of criticism is building up and will yet again blame the restaurant industry for this. But, as you know, this is something I have previously addressed as a bad idea. Nevertheless, I do think that portion sizes have gone down a slippery slope that will be very difficult to overcome because of the most culpable party in this debate--THE CONSUMER!

Let me illustrate this point by sharing my experience working in the customer relations department for a large chain of restaurants. The philosophy of the company was that most people expected to get a "good value for their money" so they naturally loaded up their specials with tons (and I do mean TONS!) of food that the average person could not, or should I say SHOULD not, be eating in one sitting. In fact, my wife Christine and I regular ended up splitting one of these meals and it was still almost too much food for us to eat (although I liked the idea of saving money through sharing a meal!).

From the restaurant business standpoint, it certainly makes sense. You want to create the impression in the mind of your customers that the dollars they are spending are being stretched and maximized to their fullest when they eat at your restaurant. Rising gas prices, uncertainties about the economy, and other factors all play a role in the psychology of restaurant marketing. It literally HAS to! With fierce competition for the coveted restaurant consumer budget money, that is one way to create a niche for yourself and market your products in an effective manner that stands out and creates financial results.

But the reality of this strategy is that you will turn off a lot of people who don't want that much food when they eat out. I can remember getting my fair share of feedback from customers who suggested we cut back on the portion sizes and maybe offer a discounted version of the same meal except without so much food. I knew this would NEVER happen because of the "value for your money" philosophy that I've already explained. Like I said, we've gone down a slippery slope.

My general response to criticism like this was that they could order another menu item that gave them less food, but inevitably that would cost them more money since it was not a special deal. Then I would explain that they could simply request that they do not want specific items in the special meal deal if they didn't think they could eat it. But this would then cause the customer to want a discount on top of the already discounted meal. UGH! You can't win!

Finally, as the only trump card left in my deck, I would make the suggestion that the customer take the extra food home with them and have it for another meal later or split the meal in half like my wife and I do. Some would balk at this idea, but others had not even thought about doing that before. Ya think?

Like I said at the beginning of this post, we really do have a dichotomy on our hands here. Consumers EXPECT to have larger portions so they can get their money's worth when eating out, but they don't want to feel forced into eating larger portions of food for the money that they spend in restaurants. Can you see why this issue is such a tough one for restaurants to figure out? Consumers really need to make up their minds collectively about what they want--smaller portions for a little less money or larger portions for a "good value?" What's it gonna be restaurant consumers?!

Going back to my experience with my restaurant customer service job, people often let me know when they felt we were cutting back on our portion sizes. If the company changed vendors to get a better price on a food item on our menu and the food did not look EXACTLY like it did before (by filling up the entire plate all the way to the edge), then our customers would accuse the company of skimping on the portion sizes while raising prices and cry foul. Price increases are not always the restaurant's fault since they can vary widely based on the market for that product. For example, pork prices have gone through the roof in recent years, so that has negatively impacted the price that is charged on any menu items that include pork.

Quite frankly, though, customers don't give a rip about these kinds of issues. What they seem to want is LOTS OF FOOD for as LITTLE MONEY AS POSSIBLE when they are eating out. Why else would all-you-can-eat, buffet-style restaurants continue to keep popping up everywhere and stay busy ALL THE TIME? People WANT to stuff themselves with food and don't feel bad about it because they "got their money's worth!" Admit it, you've even thought that yourself. I know I have and it is further evidence behind my theory that the consumer is at fault for growing portion sizes in American restaurants.

Studies have been done on portion sizes and how they effect the amount of food we actually eat. It really is scary to think about. But still we have a media-frenzy and consumers go wild when something like a 19-pound hamburger is introduced on a restaurant menu.

When will we ever learn?!

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Blogger Tabasco06 said...

Wow, that is very eye opening. People need to learn moderation in their diet. I watch what i eat but after reading your blog i will certainly think about how much i am eating the next time i am in a restaurant. More on your plate doesnt mean that you need to consume it all. Thanks for the post.

10/22/2006 4:44 PM  
Blogger Calianna said...

I don't suppose we could convince you to tell us which restaurant chain you worked for? Nah, didn't think so. ;)

I have to wonder though - about those ever increasing portion sizes on restaurant plates... What if it's not just customer demand that is causing the increase? What if it's at least in part the amount of money the restaurant expects to profit with any given customer/meal sold?

Bear with me - there might possibly be another angle to this problem.

Unless things have changed drastically in the restaurant business since I waited tables, the wait staff doesn't make much of an hourly wage. They rely on the customer to make up the difference between what the restaurant pays them and minimum wage through tips, or in the case of higher priced restaurants, the difference between their hourly wage and a living wage, or even a comfortable middle class income.

If the restaurant decreases the size of their meals - and since the customer is expecting a good deal for the money, also the price would need to be lowered proportionately - the wait staff would make smaller tips, because the amount of the tip is based on the cost of the meal.

If the wait staff's tips were cut in half (reflecting 1/2 size meals at half price), those working at many lower end restaurants might not make enough money from tips and the small wage that the restaurant pays them, to cover the minimum wage. The restaurant owner would then be required to make up the difference with increased hourly wages. But wait - we just decreased the size of the meals to reflect more normal serving sizes, and because those meals are so much smaller, we're also forced to decrease the price of the meal accordingly.

Now is where it gets even more difficult, because the restaurant owner is used to making a certain amount of profit per meal/customer. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, and you can only move so many customers through the restaurant during those 24 hours, you're limited in how much you can profit in any given day, by the average price of the meals sold. Just for illustrative purposes, let's set that amount at $10 per customer. Suddenly they've cut the size and price of their meals... and now they're only making $5 per meal/customer. On top of that, the wait staff now isn't getting enough in tips to cover minimum wage because of decreased prices, so out of their decreased income, the restaurant will have to pay the wait staff more. This isn't going to go down well with the owners/stockholders at all!

At more upscale restaurants, the wait staff may be making a very handsome income from tips on higher priced meals. In that situation, a wait person who has been making a very comfortable middle class income could suddenly find themselves completely unable to maintain that lifestyle. This isn't their fault, of course - it's an income cut that they can't do much about, other than try to convince the customers to buy more food so that they'll have a bigger tab, and leave a tip that's more in line with what they're used to... which brings us right back to bigger meals.

Along with the problems you pointed out about the restaurant business, I dont' think there's an easy answer for this.

10/22/2006 8:17 PM  
Blogger Cindy said...

I strongly feel that the job of a restaraunt, like any other business, is to make money. Yes, they should follow ethical standards, as should any company, but their main job is to make money.

If they want to make money they factor in all kinds of things, including, like calianna said, the amount in tips the wait staff will make. I'm sure the big chains all have accountants sitting around calculating everything!

That's why we have trans-fats. They're cheaper and more stable than vegetable oils, so they can be used longer.

But, bottom line, if they want to make money and stay in business, they have to serve what the people want.

I know several people who ask for a to go box along with their order. And I know a lot of people who can only afford to go out to eat if they know they get 2 meals for the price of 1.

10/22/2006 8:43 PM  
Blogger BillyHW said...

I wouldn't mind smaller portions in restaurants, as long as they lowered their prices accordingly!

10/22/2006 10:59 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I find that in the macro situation, it's a labor vs. food cost problem. The cost of delivering food is fixed. You always need at least a minimum number of waiters. However, adding a small amount of extra food is relatively cheap especially since human nature is such that no one complains about too much food, even if it cost a few extra bucks, but most complain about the cheapskate restaurant who serve too little. Add to that Caliana's comments concerning the restaurant minimum wage, which is an artificially created situation due to minimum wage laws. From a personal perspective, I find it helpful to order more expensive items at the same price, i.e. if the Shrimp dish and the Chicken dish are both the same price, it's likely you'll get less Shrimp, i.e. a reasonable portion, than Chicken. I'm not a big fan of bringing meals home for 2 reasons. First, it's all too easy to eat the whole thing in spite of your best intentions. Second, from what I've learned of both food microbiology and the biochemistry of lipids (fats and oils), unless you're going straight home and putting the item in the fridge, it just not good for you due to potential food poisoning and the cooking oils going rancid (i.e. oxidizing). As always, thanks for the time and space to comment.

10/23/2006 11:16 AM  
Blogger Monica said...

Do you know what? In all honesty I don't think going out for a meal and eating a massive portion is really the problem. The problem happens when people do this ON A REGULAR BASIS. Whatever happened to the day when "going out for dinner" was a special thing that people only did once in awhile?

I think it's fine to eat larger portions and more decandently when you go out, just don't do this all the time! It's all about balance. If you know you are going to be eating a big meal at supper then cut back at breakfast and/or lunch and balance it with exercise!

Big meals are not the problem. It's having big meals ALL THE TIME and not keeping your checks and balances that is the real issue, I think.

10/23/2006 1:49 PM  
Blogger EG said...

I agree with Monica! I fell into the trap of eating out way too many times a week, but now I only go once every other month or so and it's great. Rock on low carb Jimmy!!! You inspire so many of us, I don't think you have a clue how many lives you have touched. God bless you and yours always...

10/24/2006 3:17 PM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

THANKS for your encouragement, EG! I love doing what I'm doing and I'll keep on doing it as long as I have breath to breathe and something uplifiting to say. God bless you as well! SEE YA!


10/24/2006 3:44 PM  

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