As California restaurants begin handing out state-mandated calorie counts, some menu favorites are undergoing extreme makeovers.
Two chains with Sacramento-area stores have already announced menu changes, shifting to lower calorie-count options. Others could follow suit, in an effort to be more palatable to consumers while meeting California's new requirements, which apply to restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets.
Romano's Macaroni Grill, with four locations in the region, has managed to squeeze a whopping 880 calories out of just one salad, as the chain's menu undergoes a massive revamp under new ownership.
In June, Denny's rolled out its "Better for You" menu, which will be available at all 1,550 Denny's restaurants, including 400 in California. One of its signature items on that menu getting a calorie cut: The Grand Slam.
Even though studies have indicated that menu-labeling will alter some diners' choices, the healthy changeover in restaurant offerings wasn't anticipated, said Sacramento County Public Health Officer Glennah Trochet.
"If indeed they are adding lower-calorie options, it will give more variety and give people healthier options," she said.
At Denny's, the traditional Grand Slam breakfast accounts for as much as a quarter of revenue for the value-oriented chain, according to CEO Nelson Marchioli. He said the company's dinner and late-night business is struggling but the breakfast crowd remains strong for the value-oriented chain.
The new Grand Slam – two eggs, two sausages, two bacon slices and pancakes – is a build-your-own option with substitutions such as chicken instead of pork, egg whites, turkey bacon and whole wheat pancakes. For another 49 cents, add-ons such as yogurt are available.
With the healthier options, the Grand Slam drops from 882 calories to 546, not to mention a 70 percent drop in fat grams.
Other menu changes are coming in the fall.
But traditionalists, fear not. The Moons Over My Hammy – 780 calories – is still on the Denny's menu.
Starting this month, California required all chain restaurants with more than 20 stores to provide calorie information in brochures available to customers. Starting in 2010, the calorie counts must appear on menus or menu boards.
According to health officials, the average American adult should only be eating 2,000 calories a day.
The menu changes are in response to growing public interest, as much as to any government mandates, Marchioli said.
"The industry is trying to find a common ground. We do believe strongly it's the right thing to do and we've worked to bring alternatives to the public," he said.
At Macaroni Grill, the company's new CEO, who came on board after the chain was sold in December, has been working the past six months to boost same-store sales, primarily by retooling the menu.
The revamped menu already appears on Macaroni tables in California and is expected to roll out nationwide by the end of August, Blum said.
Providing nutritional information is the "right thing to do," he said.
The new CEO, who says he's overseeing the taste-testing himself, is primarily focused on boosting food quality.
For example, the chain's mozzarella alla caprese salad was not usually made with "high-quality" tomatoes, he said, but now uses vine-ripened tomatoes. The dish also dropped 110 calories.
The chain's scallops and spinach salad, formerly a 1,270-calorie offering, is now slimmed down to 390 calories. Blum won't disclose how, except to say the dish had more fat than was necessary.
In spite of the salad's calorie reduction, consumers have "enjoyed it better than before," Blum said.