Reducing Restaurant Portions (2007 Apr)

 by Barry A. LieblingFor the last two decades a trend among chain restaurants has been increased portion size. On the average diners have received more food on their plates, have gone to restaurants more often, and have become fatter.

What does this mean? Is it the result of deliberate choices on the part of diners – choices that are subject to change as their values evolve, they acquire new information, and restaurant offerings shift? Or are diners unwitting victims of scheming food companies that seduce them into unhealthy habits in an effort to increase their profits.

To members of the Food Police – a coterie of academics, pundits, and politicians concerned with public health and nutrition – the latter interpretation is obvious. Food Police are convinced that they know what and how much people should eat. They blame the private sector’s restaurants and food manufacturers when consumers make “incorrect choices.” Food Police favor government intervention to force businesses and consumers to “behave properly.” For example, in New York City they succeeded in banning trans fats in restaurants and passing a bill that requires fast food establishments to list the calorie count of each item on their menu boards.

Andrew Martin’s March 2007 article in The New York Times provides insights into how restaurant companies are thinking about portion size. Martin interviewed top executives in some of the largest chains. There are intense planning sessions focused on finding ways to make smaller portions palatable to consumers and profitable to the restaurants. Major chains have been experimenting with reduced servings for several years. Scaling down meals and making it work commercially is not easy. Ruby Tuesday is cited as a chain that found its customers did not buy into smaller servings or viewing nutritional information on the menu.

A major difficulty in reducing serving size and making it desirable is finding the right price points. Consumers do not want to pay the same money for a smaller plate of food. When a restaurant offers a half-sized portion some consumers are discouraged when they notice that it is almost always less economical than the full portion. Restaurants cannot automatically fix this by raising the prices of larger dishes, since this signals that the establishment is more expensive and induces diners to go elsewhere.

Some restaurants have found that lowering the prices of smaller portions encourages diners to order the petite entree and have room for dessert – which usually has a high profit margin.

Martin’s findings have at least three implications for how we should think about portion size and food choices in restaurants.

First, contrary to the cliche that consumers are passively manipulated by private businesses, consumers are in the driver’s seat – making up their own minds about what they order. They are not pawns – either of businesses or the Food Police. Restaurant chain executives are trying, not always profitably, to accommodate to what consumers want. Of course, diners vary widely as to what they regard as important, but they respond to changes in offerings and prices.

Second, there are tremendous opportunities for the restaurant industry. Many consumers are complaining that they would like to have smaller portions or healthier fare. Executives at restaurant chains retort that when they offer these alternatives diners do not buy the new meals. The lesson is not that consumers are insincere but that restauranteurs have failed to deliver products that hit the spot. Simply downsizing an entree does not always do the trick. If it did elementary school cafeterias would be much more popular. Restaurant entrepreneurs who invent ways of bringing taste, nutrition, calorie count, and economy together will be winners. Contrary to the bromide that restaurants are forced to chose between making profits and serving healthy food, businesses can capitalize on consumers’ unmet health needs.

Third, no matter how many restaurants successfully innovate with smaller portions of healthy food and no matter how easy it is to dine, the Food Police will not be satisfied. When people – both consumers and restaurant executives – are free to make their own decisions, inevitably some will make “foolish” choices that are contrary to the wishes of the Food Police. Some diners will persistently hunt for the largest amount of food for the lowest price, and they will find restaurants to cater to them. The existence of gluttons and enablers must be irritating to the Food Police. The fact that freedom permits dreadful food behavior is the rationalization Food Police use to justify force.

However, Food Police should understand that as diners and restauranteurs come to appreciate the value of healthy living, optimal portion sizes will be more common. The use of coercion is off the table.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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