From IHOP to Olive Garden, most of the nation’s biggest restaurant chains have come around to the fact that not every customer who walks through the door is craving country-fried steak with eggs and gravy or fried lasagna with alfredo sauce.
Bowing to changing tastes and calorie-count shaming by public health groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, many comfort food chains are introducing low-cal sections of their menus. IHOP is offering Simple & Fit selections and Bob Evans created Fit from the Farm, with items under 650 calories like grilled chicken breast and whole-grain pancakes.
But at least one Atlanta-based restaurant chain is not on that healthy bandwagon. Huddle House will never chase the latest healthy food trends or be adding any lighter fare to its menu, CEO Michael Abt tells The Salt.
Huddle House’s menu looks a like a narrower version of what its competitors, like Bob Evans and Waffle House, are serving. All three offer huge breakfast platters of some combination of eggs, gravy, sausage, biscuits and fried potatoes and big burgers with bacon for less than $8.
But there are a few key differences. Huddle House provides no calorie info anywhere (even online, where many chains now voluntarily post it). That means it’s hard to tell whether an item that appears to be lighter — like a salad tossed with diced ham and cheddar cheese — really is light.
Huddle House isn’t that well known outside the Southeast, but it has become a national player, with some 400 franchises in 21 states, and plans to expand into Nebraska and New Jersey. And when the 24-hour restaurant emailed us to boast that it was “bucking healthy food trends,” we had to wonder why it was so eager to go against the grain.
Abt says he himself follows a “healthy pattern of eating.” But he insists that’s not what his customers want.
The chain wants to cultivate “heavy users” who come back time and time again. But, Abt says, “we’re not promoting that customers eat indulgent foods like this all the time.”
A little indulgence now and then of course never hurt anyone. But Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at CSPI, says consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they’re ordering at any restaurant, especially if dishes have more fat, sodium and sugar than what anyone should be consuming in a day.
“I’ve never been to a Huddle House, but based on my experience looking at a lot of menus, and the menus of its competitors, I would say that many of these dishes are probably 1,000 to 2,000 calories with a couple days worth of saturated fat and sodium,” Hurley tells us. (Both The Salt and Hurley requested nutrition information from Huddle House, and did not receive it.)
“If they were required to post calorie info, I think the menus would look far different,” adds Hurley.
As we’ve reported, the Affordable Care Act includes a provision that requires chain restaurants to post calories on menus. But it’s not in effect yet. Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing the Food and Drug Administration to finalize the rule they proposed back in 2011.
As for why Huddle House isn’t feeling the heat from its clientele to provide this info or offer healthy options in the meantime, demographics play a big part. “Our customer skews older,” in the range of 40 to 60 years old, says Abt. “Their eating habits are different than what you see in urban markets that are heavily penetrated by younger professionals.”
And most of the Huddle House franchises are located in small towns, where restaurant options are very limited and comfort food rules.
Suzanne Judd, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who has studied the link between the Southern-style diet (lots of fried food, processed meat and sweet tea) and risk of stroke, says people are more likely to eat the Southern diet in rural areas across the U.S.
Judd says that she doesn’t see restaurants like Huddle House, which serve this type of food, as necessarily driving the high rates of obesity and stroke in the U.S. “But they definitely capitalize on the market for cheap, high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar food,” she says. “And it would be great if they could target these nutrients and try to lower them.”
If Huddle House continues to buck the trend and refuses to scale back the sodium or the fat, some people with an eye on Southern food trends think that business model is ultimately doomed.
“What Huddle House is doing is working; they’re in a growth moment,” says Chris Hastings, chef and co-owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club, a high-end restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., that specializes in local, seasonal fare. “But I can promise you that business model will have to change because the younger generation is considering food and nutrition a lot more than the older generation. Every business that serves food in America is going to have to follow that cycle.”