Lessons from the low-carb craze

April 5, 2005

Last week, while watching the University of Louisville Cardinals (yes, I'm a proud alumnus) claw their way into the NCAA Final Four, I was struck by a commercial for low-carb yogurt.

"Low-carb?" I asked my wife. "That company's a little behind the curve, don't you think?"

"I guess somebody still wants it," she said.

"But who?" I asked. "Do you know anybody that's doing Atkins anymore?"

"No, I don't guess I do," she said after a long pause.

Not only

Steve Coomes, Senior Editor

could I not think of anyone on a low-carb diet, I couldn't think of anyone who benefited from one.

And, yet, here was this flashy, expensive, prime-time TV commercial touting the virtues of a naturally low-carb product — and interrupting the greatest comeback in school history, I might add.

I'd call that wasted marketing money, because for the better part of a year, consumer research has shown a deepening decline in the sales of low-carb products in groceries and restaurants. According to an article in QSR Magazine, research done by the NPD Group found low-carb dieting peaked in January 2004 when 9.1 percent of Americans followed the fat-and-protein-friendly plan. A mere 11 months later, that number was two-thirds lower.

Whether that means people have grown wiser and will cease blaming carbohydrates for their dietary downfalls is doubtful. One need only hearken back to the fat-free fad of the 1990s to see how easily folks are sucked into any notion that sounds like a quick fix for flabby fannies.

What is clear is low-carb is at a low ebb, and one can only hope the over-focus on such diets will die a quick death.

Lessons learned

You've got to admit it, the low-carb craze packed a heck of a punch. Diet books topped best-sellers lists and their authors/shills were the darlings of the talk-show circuit. Everyone yammered on about protein-heavy diets, which gave virtual license to eat tons of fat. Cardiologists didn't know whether to cheer or cry.

Restaurants dumped buckets of bucks into the development of low-carb munchies and grocers carved out hunks of precious shelf space to make room for the same.

And yet, as the low-carb craze appears headed the way of the leisure suit (if you're too young to remember that, just ask your parents) it appears all the frantic effort may have been for naught. At no time did low-carb diets gain a significant share of sales in either groceries or restaurants, yet they combined to make up the squeakiest of wheels beckoning for an undue amount of grease.

Well ... in some foodservice segments, but not pizza. Overall, I think the pizza business deserves a collective pat on the back for not going nuts over perceived low-carb concerns. Considering the carb-concentrated content of pizza crust, it would have been easy to panic and pursue low-carb options with reckless abandon.

But the facts never supported doing so — at least on a grand scale. Operators I talked to over the past two years said low-carb pie sales typically peaked at around 15 percent during trial periods, and then they slid into the single digits when most people realized they weren't that good.

"It went well when we introduced it, but it's definitely not a world beater for us," said Tom Santor, company spokesman for Donatos Pizzeira, which still sells its NoDough low-carb "pizza." Basically, toppings and cheese are piled onto a base of soy crumbles and baked. "What's good is the product has opened some other niche avenues for niche for us. People who can't eat gluten, for example, love that product. They tell us they've not been able to eat pizza for 15 years, and now they can eat pizza again. It's sort of a lucky strike on the original intention."

Some, like Domino's Pizza, abandoned their low-carb pizza when it became clear no appreciable amount of customers wanted them. If customers really speak with their dollars, then George Washington was barely whispering when it came to low-carb pies.

"Our instinct turned out to be correct, that people recognized pizza is a treat, not something you eat every day," said Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications at Domino's. "We offered (the Carb Cruncher pizza) for a very short time, but we stopped it when people stopped asking for it. When there's no demand, there's no reason to maintain and promote a product."

Some benefit

It's my hope that the low-carb hubbub at least increased consumer awareness about eating in general. If it helped people refocus on the benefits of a balanced diet — and not just eliminating whole dietary components like carbs or fat — then it was worth it.

In the wake of the Atkins diet and because of looming lawsuits by fat fascists, an increasing number of restaurant companies have posted detailed nutritional information on Web sites, menus and in stores. At the very least, the consumers who care about what they're eating are better informed. (Whether they make the effort to use that info remains to be seen.)

The whole foodservice industry will do well to learn a few lessons from all of this.

1. Don't react to diet trends in a knee-jerk fashion. Before you go spending money to whip up a product that meets the latest food fad, ask your customers if they even want it. If some say "yes," find out how many really want it before committing to it.

2. Acknowledge that people want more healthful options, but don't let that affect your core products, i.e. the horses that got you were you are. Be wise and create a reduced-cheese, non-meat, veggie-centered pie, bundle it with a salad and diet soda offering, call it the Dieter's Special and give it a quick-order number. (Post the nutritional information on it as well.) In this order-by-the-numbers industry, customers will appreciate the convenience of being able to make a taste and diet decision at a glance.

3. Understand that customers are so easily taken in by diet fads because they're so woefully ill-informed. So take the leadership role and clue them in. Tout the whole-foods virtues of pizza; the combination of cheese, tomato sauce and bread make a wholesome meal, so say it.

4. Ironically, pizza companies didn't suffer too much from the low-carb fad, and many operators I've talked to say that's because their customers see pizza as an indulgence, not a staple. Customers seem to understand that they need to eat well 80 percent of the time so they can have some fun with their food during the other 20 percent.

So make it special for them. Make your product so memorably good that there's no doubt in customers' minds they're returning to your place for that weekly treat. And mention it in your marketing materials, too, by claiming yours is the best above all the rest. That's a lot more compelling than just saying your pizza's the lowest priced.

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