Restaurants say protein is healthy

Zaxby’s used this ad to highlight their new Buffalo Garlic Blaze sauce for their wings./Image courtesy of Zaxby’s.

Plate condition

About a decade ago, the chain’s menu R&D took an unexpected turn towards health. Demonstrably better-for-you dishes were historically food non-starters. Georgia-based D’Lites of America built a 100-unit chain in the late 1980s based on lean burgers, high-fiber buns and low-calorie cheese. In other words, it was exactly the kind of food consumers claimed they wanted; but in practice they remained en masse, and the operation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1987.

The most recent catalyst for changing customer behavior has been the emergence of protein as a food superstar. In many ways, its growing popularity as a “good” macronutrient has come at the expense of fats, which still suffer from decades of dietary demonization, and carbohydrates. Whether simple or complex, good or bad, carbs were just too complicated for many consumers, and the rise of high-protein diets has effectively pushed carbs down.

Along with its new position at the top of the ingredient chain, the protein promotion came with an added bonus: it had a distinct appeal to male diners. Operations that relied heavily on female customers, notably bakery cafes, had a hook to attract men, and brands that traditionally had a strong male franchise, such as some fast-food chains, had additional appeal.

Food man. In 2013, Panera Bread launched new items specifically aimed at appealing to male diners. It was a “secret” menu, a popular promotional tactic at the time, which consisted of a range of Power Bowls such as the Power Breakfast Egg White Bowl with Steak. Corner Bakery followed suit with the Power Panini Thin with avocado and spinach, and Taco Bell stepped in with the Power Protein Menu which offered burritos and bowls. These doubled the usual amount of chicken or steak, had over 20 grams of protein, and contained less than 450 calories.

The promise of protein remains a draw for consumers, with new offerings frequently bundled together at the start of the year to capitalize on customers’ post-holiday food resolutions. First Watch, for example, helped customers start 2022 off right with limited-time Superseed Protein Pancakes; the seeds in question included nuggets and sunflower with a finish of a special super-seed crunch.

Urban Plates, which has been responsible for some of the most memorable menu merchandising in recent years, entered the new year with striking graphics and fun copy aimed at young men whose “purpose is to get pumped up.” They were asked to “get ripped off” by choosing one of 15 plates with over 40 grams of protein. Those hoping to be even more severely bloated could double the protein content of any plate.

Spring menu introductions also put protein in the spotlight, with Piada Italian Street Food’s Chilean Salmon Power Bowl, Noodles & Company’s LEANguini Test, wheat-based noodles that are 56% lower in carbs and 44% more protein, and both Bob Evans restaurants. new Farm Fresh Super Bowls, including a Double Meat Protein Bowl.

promo bro

The Urban Plates “Bro Promo”./Image courtesy of Urban Plates.

Bro Cocks. Protein is an equal opportunity nutrient. While most women can choose to forego the bulky feeling it can provide, they are not at all averse to a high-protein diet. In fact, Restaurant Business sister company Technomic reports that men and women almost identically index their propensity to order protein-rich foods. In addition, 64% of women and 63% of men consider the expression “high in protein” to be a sign of health.

There is, however, a somewhat more pronounced gender difference when it comes to heat levels, as 40% of men versus 33% of women indicate a preference for super spicy foods.

This accounts for the fact that very spicy dishes, of the kind that mark the Scoville heat rating scale, have become a staple of many menus; and they’re usually targeted at young men with an implicit ‘you go first’ challenge. Arby’s made the implicit explicit this winter with the limited-time Diablo Dare Sandwich touted as the “spiciest sandwich on the market.” Its incendiary combination of ghost peppers, chipotles and jalapeños was accompanied by a flame retardant vanilla milkshake.

At the same time, Zaxby’s launched a new Buffalo Garlic Blaze signature sauce for its popular chicken wings. The product launch was bolstered by a particularly goofy ad campaign featuring a guy on a buffalo wing; there was also a specially composed soundtrack which featured a folk song created by Jomo & The Possum Posse.

Winter specials from sister chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s featured a promotional hook of a different kind with the Bacon Beast Burger, Bacon Beast Burrito, and Bacon Beast Biscuit. The nickname was clearly a clue: the beastly biscuit came with six strips of meat and was aimed at bacon lovers with hearty appetites.

Kind Benders. Some entrepreneurs are flipping the gender appeal script, like The Sports Bra with its cheeky “We Support Women” tagline. This women-centric sports bar was founded in Portland, Oregon, for fans who prefer watching TV screens dedicated to women’s athletics like the WNBA. The menu features female-owned food and drink vendors, though it emphasizes familiar pub grub. There are burgers and beer, ribs and wings. The latter are prepared according to the owner’s Vietnamese family recipes, and the operation is also child-friendly and offers an attractive children’s menu.

On the other side of the gender gap, potent yogurt, which debuted in supermarkets in 2013 in an effort to disrupt the women’s category, quickly earned the nickname “brogurt.” Its point of difference is its substantial 25 grams of protein in a “human-sized” eight-ounce cup that fits manly hands better. Lest the point be lost, the packaging features a bull in the logo.

Speaking of bull, Matador Meggings entered the activewear market with the claim that “All superheroes wear tights.” The company founder noticed he was the only one not wearing leggings in his yoga class and thought men should be invited to “join the spandex party”. Her invitation comes with a signature design that puts the horns of a bull around the thighs. The response to date from yoga practitioners who provided her inspiration is not recorded.

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Sandy A. Greer