Byline: Gregory Richards, Times-Union business writer
Tofu tater tots.
Fast-food restaurants haven't gotten this healthy -- yet.
But have you seen the new salads? The grilled sandwiches? Or heard the talk of (gasp!) exercise in those bastions of all that's cheesy, greasy, tasty and fast?
This is what fast-food diners want in today's health-conscious world, say the chains, which many have blamed for the fattening of America.
"We're trying to let people know that we're on their side, that we're basically not trying to make society fall apart," said Beverly Jelinek, a vice president with Southern Industrial Corp., which franchises 34 local Burger Kings. "Our food can be healthy."
But while the chains push healthier selections, the other sides of their menu boards boast new choices that are decidedly unhealthy, such as Hardee's giant Thickburger and McDonald's McGriddle. Still, healthy is definitely where the fast-food business is heading.
"It's huge in the industry right now," said Jeffrey Davis, executive vice president with Sandelman & Associates, a California firm that tracks consumer preferences for the leading restaurant chains. "Just about everybody is offering something for a 'Better for you' option.' "
The chains didn't decide to do this on a whim. There was a lawsuit -- recently dismissed -- against McDonald's by eight teenagers saying the chain's food made them fat. The industry feared it could blossom into a class-action filing.
Slumping sales by several chains played a role as well, especially as they watched Subway thrive by peddling low-fat subs.
The chains listened to their customers, too. A national study conducted this spring by Davis' firm showed that 65 percent of fast-food customers surveyed said healthy and nutritious fast foods are important to them. In 2000, only 60 percent did.
Now it's up to the fast-food companies to prove that customers can associate "fast food" with "healthy," which embraces low-fat, low-carb and everything between. For Atkins diet followers, Hardee's, for instance, is testing a low-carb burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. And chains like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut have slimmed down their offerings.
Experts say it's a draw as to whether they'll succeed, as past efforts have been spotty.
Remember McDonald's McLean DeLuxe, a low-fat burger from the early 1990s? It was a bomb. And entire chains like De-Lite, which sold fare like turkey sandwiches on multigrain buns, have failed while trying to sell fast food that tried to be good for you.
"In the past, the consumer has been kind of ho-hum about healthy options," said Ron Paul, president of Technomics, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting group. "That's not why they go to fast-food restaurants. We'll have to see whether that climate has changed."
To be sure, some customers are lapping up the new offerings. McDonald's in particular has credited its new premium salad line with helping to drive sales, which last month increased 11 percent. And Wendy's says 30 percent of those who have bought its Garden Sensations salads came just for that.
"Every day at noontime, this is what I eat," said Benny Tyson, 56, as he pointed his to McDonald's take-out bag that held a salad and bottled water, his daily ritual. "It doesn't get any better than this."
But during a recent lunch-hour at the McDonald's on Butler Boulevard near Philips Highway, Tyson was the only walk-up customer to order one of the fast-food giant's premium salads, despite a steady stream of customers. And only a handful more salads were sold through the drive-through window. Others were ordering Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and Chicken McNuggets -- none of which are exactly low-calorie. …