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Healthy Fast Food: Oxymoron or Competitive Advantage?

by Patricia Schaefer

"Traditional marketing says fill a need and you'll be successful. America has a huge need to eat healthy and no one's filling that need in the fast food market... not really." So says Jaynie Smith, author of Creating Competitive Advantage and president of Smart Advantage, Inc.

Smith is right about the huge need for Americans to eat healthy: According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 66.5 percent of adults are overweight or obese; 32 percent of adults obese. Just as alarming if not more so, childhood obesity is escalating; tripling since the 1970's. 17 percent of adolescents and 19 percent of children are overweight.

Increasing demands, legislation and litigation directed at America's fast food industry is now at fever pitch. Every day headlines abound on the issue of our fast food giants and the customers and food they serve:

  • "America's Deadly Junk Food Addition"
  • "Wendy's Significantly Cuts Trans Fats"
  • "NYC Councilman Proposes Limiting Fast Food"
  • "KFC Sued for Unhealthy Fat"

When Smith says there's a need and niche for healthy food in the fast food market, there's good reason to listen. Clients who take her Smart Advantage workshop typically increase their company revenues by double digit growth within six to 12 months after completion. True to her book title, Smith does in fact know a thing or two about creating that "competitive advantage."

"If someone would create a chain with healthy food, and I don't just mean healthy food that tastes bad (like junky iceberg lettuce) - but healthy food that tastes wonderful -- they would have complete competitive advantage in a new niche," says Smith. "And there is a niche completely unserved out there in the fast food market."

Take the beleaguered fast food chain KFC. Their latest conundrum is a recent lawsuit targeting its use of cooking oil with trans fat, today's "dirty word" in the world of healthy eating. Although reviewing alternative oil options, KFC has yet to find another oil that produces as good a taste. In contrast, Wendy's -- often referred to as the "fast food innovator" -- just announced that it is cutting trans fat from its menu, switching to a new blend of corn and soy oil in August. Wendy's will be the first fast food chain to switch from trans fat to a healthier oil.

Smith says there are a couple of things KFC and other fast food franchises can do to create a competitive advantage. One is they can offer their customers an option in menu items; for example, the traditional KFC chicken or "KFC light ('only three grams of fat')." The second solution according to Smith is for fast food franchises to have a separate stand-alone chain that has healthy offerings that taste good.

"Statistics show that it is the higher educated, higher income people who most focus on being healthy," noted Smith. "Therefore, if you have a product chain that differentiates its product to be healthier, price would not be an issue because these are the folks who want to eat healthier and they'll pay for it. I know when I'm in an airport I don't care what it costs if I can find something healthy."

Past fast food chain attempts at "healthy" have had mixed results. Do you remember McDonald's McLean Deluxe hamburger introduced in 1991? The low-fat McLean burger's taste was certifiably terrible and was subsequently withdrawn from McDonald's menu. Subway on the other hand has had great success with their "Subs with 6 grams of Fat or Less" campaign (by the way, they also contain no trans fat). A recent try of their 5-grams-of-fat Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sub was very pleasing to the palate. Toasted and customized with added veggies, it is heartily recommended. With 26,044 restaurants in 84 counties, Subway's success in part is due to the fact that it promotes and provides "an alternative to traditional greasy fast food."

So, tell me. It's the year 2010. You walk into a Boston Market. From these two menu offerings (the second is presently fictional), which would you choose?

  • Meatloaf with a side of creamed spinach and sweet potato casserole, and cornbread (1420 calories and 79 grams of fat)?


  • Grilled Salmon with a side of seasoned roasted vegetables and a basil-chive red potato mash (471 calories and 15 grams of fat)?

When looking at today's fast food calories and nutritional values it's no wonder then that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a report on away-from-home foods, with recommendations on how restaurants and carry-out chains can help prevent overweight and obesity. These recommendations include:

  • Increase the availability of lower-calorie products, menu items and meals.
  • Shift the emphasis of marketing. The marketing of lower-calorie and less-calorie-dense food should increase accompanied by a reduction in marketing that highlights higher-calorie (or calorie-dense) foods or encourages large portions.
  • Strengthen and/or create education and promotion programs regarding away-from-home foods that promote the consumption of fruits, vegetables, no- and low-fat milk and milk products, whole grains, and foods low in saturated fats and trans-fatty acids.
  • Away-from-home food establishments should provide consumers with calorie information in a standard format that is easily accessible and easy to use.

"If somebody would get both down; the fast and the food -- the fast and the "good" food down -- then you'd really have something," says Smith. "You'd have a competitive advantage that none of them could catch in the short term."

Let's hope -- for the future health and wellbeing of the American public -- that someone out there is listening.

Copyright 2006, Attard Communications, Inc.

You can read an excerpt from Jaynie Smith's book, Creating Competitive Advantage on BusinessKnowHow.com.

To find out more about Smart Advantage, Inc. or Jaynie Smith's book Creating Competitive Advantage, go to www.smartadvantage.com.

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