A restaurant chain finds that many consumers don't want to fight the war on obesity at lunch or dinner.
What happens when restaurants respond to demands from nutritionists that they join in the fight against obesity by reducing portion sizes and posting calorie information on menus?
The restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday jumped on what it thought might be a consumer trend last year and cut portion sizes. But after listening to protests from customers -- and seeing sales drop -- the chain admits it was a painful error and has gone back to larger sizes.
"We did hear from our guests," said Richard Johnson, senior vice president for the chain, which operates 700 restaurants in the United States and 35 internationally. He said there were protests made on the company's Web site, by phone calls and to restaurant managers.
"I think we learned that people have established ideas about what constitutes value when they eat out," he said.
Drop in sales
Beginning last April, Ruby Tuesday cut back on the sizes of pasta dishes and French fries and also portion sizes on some entrees. The experiment lasted until August, when the company realized sales were dropping and scrapped the experiment.
Sandy Beall, chief executive officer of the Maryville, Tenn.-based chain, acknowledged in a conference call with Ruby Tuesday investors last week that the reductions in portion size were part of the reason the once-thriving company reported a 5 percent drop in sales.
The chain said savings on food weren't part of the decision to cut portion sizes. "It was done because we thought our guests would respond well to it. We learned they didn't respond well to it," Johnson said.
The casual dining chain next week unveils new menus with traditional portion sizes and is starting a new advertising campaign to try to attract its customers back. Johnson said that in the future, it will let customers decide whether to leave the excess portions uneaten or take them home in a doggy bag.
Good business sense
Steve Anderson, executive director of the National Restaurant Association, said Ruby Tuesday's experience shows the difficulties facing the food business, which is under the gun from nutritionists and the federal government to stop super-sizing menus and do more to contribute to the war against obesity.
"I commend them for what they did, and it looks like they discovered how difficult it is to do," Anderson said. "It's good business sense to provide what people want."
With increasing numbers of the U.S. population eating out, the restaurant industry has been attacked by several organizations in recent years for increasing or "super-sizing" portion sizes. A University of North Carolina study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003, concluded that increased portion sizes were one reason that more than 44 million Americans were obese.
The size of the lowly homemade hamburger beefed up from 5.7 ounces in 1977 to 8.4 ounces, while fast-food hamburgers grew from 6.1 ounces to 7.2 ounces, that study said. It's not just the food portions that have increased, but 12-inch plates have replaced what was a standard 101/2-inch diameter plate at white table restaurants over the last decade.