Six local restaurants are discovering that good health is good business.
Dragonfly Café, Farrar’s Bistro, Mighty Bowl, Mill Creek Pub, Mint Tea and Morelia’s Mexican Grill earned recognition from Clark County Public Health (CCPH) this fall as Healthy Neighborhood Restaurants by promoting healthier side dishes, healthy kids’ meals and beverages and offering smaller portion sizes alongside regular menu items.
The menu changes are part of the Healthy Neighborhood Restaurant Program (HNRP) launched by CCPH to help local, non-chain restaurants meet the health needs of consumers.
“The changes were easy to implement, and our sales have increased,” said Russell Brent, owner of Mill Creek Pub in Battle Ground. “Customer traffic has increased, and we have been able to maintain our margins.”
Steve Valenta, owner of the Mighty Bowl, said that providing healthy food isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s what customers want: “Our customers are intelligent. They want to make good choices about the food they eat. This program helped us accomplish [that goal] for our customers.”
According to a recent report by the USDA Economic Research Service, Americans spend almost half of their food budget on meals prepared outside the home. However, as consumers heed current information about how obesity and high sodium diets contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, they may be choosing to eat more meals at home. A 2013 survey by the consulting firm AlixPartners, reports that concerns about the health of their food replaced financial concerns as the primary reason consumers choose not to dine out.
Debbie Belden, owner of Farrar’s Bistro in Hazel Dell, said her customers often ask for healthier options, so when Melissa Martin, community health specialist at CCPH, introduced her to the Healthy Neighborhood program, Belden welcomed it as a way to help diners find the healthier options they are looking for. Along the way, Belden said the program also taught her to reduce sodium by using fresh herbs and spices and by roasting vegetables to bring out their flavor.
Belden saw a demonstration of these techniques at a training program for local chefs, offered last June as part of the HNRP.
“By balancing the flavors of a dish, you don’t need to rely as much on salt,” said trainer Garrett Berdan, a chef and registered dietitian from Bend, Oregon.
The Healthy Neighborhood Restaurant program began in 2012 with grant funding from Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CCPH staff reached out to local restaurant owners, and together, they formed the HNRP advisory committee. After examining healthy dining programs from around the country, the committee developed eligibility criteria and menu guidelines for participating restaurants.
To qualify for recognition as a Healthy Neighborhood Restaurant, locally owned restaurants commit to increasing healthy food options on their menus by offering smaller portions, healthy side dishes such as steamed vegetables instead of french fries and healthy children’s meals. In addition, chefs are provided with complimentary training by a chef/dietitian to help them reduce sodium and calories in their recipes without sacrificing flavor. A clean restaurant inspection record for at least one year is also a requirement.
So what’s in it for the restaurant owners? In addition to public recognition from CCPH, restaurants receive marketing materials to promote their healthy options, culinary training opportunities, advice on healthy menu modifications and access to research on restaurant trends, customer surveys and other information.
“These restaurants are positioning themselves to meet a growing consumer demand for healthy places to eat,” Martin said.
Gilda Ciraulo, a regular customer at Mill Creek Pub, agreed.
“I think it’s fabulous,” she said. “My husband and I are very busy, and we eat out a lot. I’m always concerned about my sodium intake, so I’m thrilled that more restaurants will now be providing healthier choices.”
Martin looks forward to expanding the program to additional locally owned restaurants and worksite cafes this year.
“Our goal is to make the healthy choice the easy choice — especially when dining out,” he said.
For more information on the HNRP, contact Melissa Martin at 360.397.8000 ext. 7281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow the HNRP Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/cchealthyrestaurants.
Cyndie Meyer is the Chronic Disease Prevention program manager for Clark County Public Health.