May 27-June 2, 2004
Feast or Famine
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Local restaurants tell carbs to take a hike. But will they make any dough?
"The bagel -- it's very special."
That's not a particularly unusual thought for Michael Wagner. It might strike him as he swings by his store before rush hour, by which time his team will have been up for four hours. From their kitchen, more than 50 dozen will roll forth each day. When you've been in the bagel business as long as he has, it's easier to tell what's going to show staying power, and what will be tomorrow's bread crumbs.
So putting a new item on the shelves at South Street Philly Bagels takes more than just thought. It takes planning, Wagner believes, to raise it to the store's proud standard. Among bakers, there's traditionally more than a pinch of suspicion for the newfangled: You never mess with a perfect recipe.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
But today those in the restaurant business are having to face an unpleasant new reality: Low-carb diet companies are saying that not only are some foods bad for us, but some should be outright excluded. Even the "special" ones. And people are listening.
For now, the carbohydrate-conscious diet industry wields its powerful appeal, unchecked by government agencies. There is currently no federally approved definition of what constitutes a low-carb food. Until then, dieters may be unable to tell what is genuinely low-carb and what's an opportunistic appeal to their appetites.
Meanwhile, as the trend has become more and more mainstream, it's become harder for restaurants and cafes to fall back on what were seen as plentiful, cheap comfort foods: pasta, bread, rice. According to state industry figures, Pennsylvania restaurants are competing with each other for an annual turnover projected to be more than $13 billion, giving them an ever-present reason to crack a new dining audience. So now, Wagner's bagel bins contain a new variety, sitting next to pumpernickel and above onion. They're labeled low-carb.
The low-carb industry has been on the assault against high-carb foods, arguing that they flood the body with simple sugars and can cause obesity and other conditions. And the bagel, like any bread product, is one of their targets. Strict regimens -- most prominently the South Beach Diet, Atkins, The Zone or Protein Power -- speak through their diet plans and the now widely publicized formula, whereby dietary fiber and certain sugar alcohols are deducted from a product's carb grams to give a net score. Here the bagel flunks: 60 net grams of carbs, when an Atkins dieter has just a daily allowance of between 20 and 50. Either a strict dieter munches just half a bagel (hold the cream cheese) and maxes out a day's allowance, or finds something else for breakfast. But, as Wagner's new bagel proves, a product's appeal can depend on concurring with what the diet companies say is within limits. His low-carb variety clocks in with 21 net carb grams.
Back in the kitchen, hundreds of smooth rounds wait on featureless trays, the dough proofing before being boiled and baked. Among them sit several dozen of the new sort, boasting no white flour.
"We've always had low-carb bagels," insists Wagner, who founded the store in 1995 and has been baking for 32 years. "Whole wheat, eight-grain and oat bran -- they're all lower in carbs. But with Atkins and the low-carb craze, if you cut out all the white flour, you'll get a lower count."
Six months passed while the dough department worked on prototypes. And when the final one was created in March, the approved ingredients were all posted on the shop counter. The long list includes rye, wheat and oat flakes; soy flour; and wheat gluten.
The decision to spend months in development has aroused some competitive interest, according to Wagner. "We have friends in the muffin business, and when they tried one of the new version, they were like, "What do you have in this? Because we've been trying to develop a low-carb muffin for the longest while,' and it's difficult using whole grain because it makes them heavy. But the wheat gluten is one of the secrets."
What is more of a secret is how much money is invested in the development of a homegrown low-carb product. The price of specialist flour, for example, is commensurate with its quality -- and not something the dough department at South Street Philly Bagel is prepared to compromise on. High-gluten flour costs $10 more per bag than conventional flour, explains one staff member -- "Think of what that means times a thousand bags."
Not all of that flour goes to produce their limited batch of low-carb bagels: Wagner estimates they sell "a few dozen" a day. "We're not setting the world on fire," Wagner likes to admit. But, "Along the way, we learned a lot about what not to put in them."
But trial and error hasn't stopped Wagner and other city restaurateurs with the same idea from chasing customers with offers of low-carb menus, imitation products and even entire cafes exclusively devoted to the trend. And it all starts at breakfast: A recent study into carb consumption found that the food most avoided by dieters in the U.S. was cereal.
"We don't like to demonize certain foods." That's the message from Sheila Cohn, a nutrition policy manager for the National Restaurant Association. "We don't endorse any one specific diet or regimen." This has led, the group admits, to a delay in tracking how people's dietary affiliations affect how they behave when eating out. "I don't even know if we'd call it a trend -- that's another point that's contentious," Cohn explains. "We don't know if it's a trend, or just a fad!" But she says there's no question that restaurants are forced to adapt to changing eating habits nationwide. "Currently more guests want more nutritious food -- lower fat, lower carbs -- on the menus." So are restaurants under any obligation to serve healthy dishes? "We are an industry of choice. We are there to give people what they want, and in the last several years there's been so much attention on nutrition and leading a healthy lifestyle. Our public demands that and wants that when they eat out. So that is their obligation -- to answer the demands of their guests."
Identifying what portion of the public is demanding low-carb items on its menus has been the chief challenge -- and one that the Restaurant Association admits it hasn't researched. It's been left to private consultants to attempt to make sense of the marketplace.
Anne Mixen, author of an extensive study by market information company The NPD Group/NPD Foodworld, reports that, at any given time, about 4 percent of the American population considers themselves to be on a low-carb/high-protein diet. This translates to roughly 10 million Americans, and by that token an estimated 60,000 of them live in Philadelphia. The study tracked a panel of households, which kept diaries of everything they ate apart from salt, pepper and water, at home or dining out, over three years between 2001 and 2003. But within that 4 percent, the study found that many of these dieters consumed many more carbs than the daily 20 grams to 50 grams recommended by various diets for weight loss. The dieters' average was 128 net carbs a day.
Mixen recognizes this as an indication that something is getting in the way of the dieters' planned regimens. "I think it's a possibility of two things -- we don't know which of the two factors carries more weight. But either they're not aware that they're consuming as many carbs as they are, or they're modifying this diet to be something they can live with."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
For diet companies, this would seem a bit of a headache: Their clients are battling either with confusion about what everyday foods contain, or weak will power. Neither points to success on the weight-loss front. But since the study concentrated on those who were self-proclaimed low-carbers, it shows there's room for the restaurant industry to target that group: either to educate them -- or tempt them.
Two factors point to this as a restaurant opportunity: According to Mixen, the group's overall restaurant behavior, "as far as whether or not they would visit a restaurant, was similar to the average adult. So it's not like they were visiting less often than an average adult."
And in a forthcoming survey conducted by marketing group Mintel, interest levels in the low-carb diets have grown considerably since NPD asked in 2001. More than 50 percent of those asked by Mintel say they either are currently cutting back, have tried in the past or would try in the future.
But as much as this growth in awareness has been felt in Philadelphia, it has left other local purveyors at the mercy of the national trend. Wendy Smith Born, co-owner of Metropolitan Bakery, whose baguettes and brioches grace the tables of local restaurants, believes that the anti-carb message hit its stride around New Year's -- and has the figures to prove it. "Our bread sales are down, 10 to 15 percent, in the last quarter; I've noticed it especially since January, and that's consistent with people going on diets after the holidays." Other products they supply, such as cakes and sweets, have been unaffected.
The effect has been felt higher up the food chain too: Mintel reports the declining sales in potatoes nationwide, and even Michael Wagner, in his conversations with flour producers, has heard that white flour sales "have gone down about 30 percent."
But as damaged as sales have been, the longer-term effects may be felt in the image of certain targeted foods. In response, Smith Born started to distribute leaflets in a few of her stores, reading "Low-Carb Options." It lists five loaves, all full of whole-grain fiber, most with 10 grams or fewer of net carbs, and includes their organic spelt variety, containing no white flour like Wagner's bagel. On the flip side it reads, slightly more pugilistically, "Us Versus Them," outlining reasons why artisanal breads, made without additives, are preferable to factory-made "low-carb' breads which can contain mono- and diglycerides and other additives and preservatives to make them taste fresh.
Curiously, she says, while retail sales have gone down, their deliveries to restaurants have not. They're making somewhat fewer of the white breads. Nevertheless, personally she believes the low-carb diet is "extremely unbalanced. I think the enemy of the American diet, very, very frankly, is processed food with a lot of processed ingredients, sugar and hydrogenated fats. Exercise is the most crucial factor in a diet where you're trying to lose weight," she counters. "But we're always looking for a quick fix. In the morning someone might think, "I'm on my diet,' but in the afternoon, they'll think, "Oh, let me have a cookie.' Food is so psychologically linked to perception and convenience."
"It just makes me mad!" exclaims Joe Monte. "I went through it all the hard way!"
Monte looks around the recently opened Trend Café, which he dreamed up with friend and workout buddy Marcello Larotonda. "People have it so easy now," he reckons. "For the past 10 years, I've spent every summer eating just tuna fish."
On Trend Café's sign, a bright orange rectangle hanging on the south side of the block between Front and Second on South Street, the ink is barely dry on the black lettering: "Low Carb." There's not a thing in the store that doesn't qualify under the diet -- apart from the optional fresh fruit used in the signature smoothies. ("I'll put that in if people particularly ask for it," Monte says.) The shelves around the tangerine-painted walls are stocked with lunch foods, snacks and bottled drinks, all with labels that aren't quite familiar, containing not quite familiar variations on popular foods. Past the small cafe tables, the counter also includes a coffee bar, where Monte mixes high-protein shakes and smoothies, made with non-dairy soy cream. "We built it around a coffee-bar concept," he explains, "but it's really more of a lunch, to-go place." On a typical week, they'll shift 20 boxes of Carb'Tastic microwavable penne with "meat" sauce, 32 loaves of bread and a few low-carb chocolate chip fudge cookies made by a one-man business in Ardmore.
When they opened in mid-February, Monte says they didn't know what to expect. But he's found there's an early morning rush for coffees and other drinks, a few lunchtime customers, and a really busy back end of the week, "Thursday to Sunday," when they get a lot of business from passing clubbers. (Mixen's study for NPD indicated that most people who claimed they ate low-carb were in an older category, between 35 and 64 years old, and had above-average rates for diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.)
Taking a look around gives the casual visitor a brief lesson in food labeling. The net carb measurement (also known as "refined' or "digestible' carbs) is listed on most of the nutrition labels, and Monte is ready with an easy explanation of ketosis, the process by which the body can train itself to burn fat once carbs are eliminated. The marketing of this formula, promoted by Atkins in particular, remains one of the challenges to encouraging people to eat low-carb all the time. (While most diets will allow a slight relaxation over time, they all protest that a sudden increase in carbs will halt the ketosis process and cause the body to start storing fat again.) This has led to the inevitable appearance of Atkins-endorsed products on shelves including Trend Café's, and soon the conversation turns to the other favorite topic for low-carbers: the iniquities of the traditional food pyramid. Monte firmly believes, "It's practically obsolete." But then, Monte doesn't hide his conviction: Trend Café is opening two more city locations soon, both inside Shapes gyms. The cafe's name, he says, "is sort of a joke -- because we think low-carb's going to be here forever."
It's not hard to imagine that labeling -- the fine print, the easily overlooked stats -- may be what halts the hasty carving of the low-carb restaurant niche. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing a standard definition for "low-carb," and hopes to have one in place by the end of the year. This is in development at the same moment when the Pennsylvania state House is considering a measure on food labeling. Sponsored by state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, a Philadelphia
Democrat, the bill would force restaurant chains with 20 locations or more to print nutritional information alongside the dishes listed on their menus, in similar-sized type.
Patrick Conway, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, is unequivocal in his assessment that the bill is "misguided, and totally impractical." But he admits that it raises the question of how far restaurants should be allowed to oversee their own presentation of their food's health benefits. Though some chains may simply not want to give away the ingredients in their house dressing, the move toward comprehensive labeling would also potentially skew customers toward the healthier dishes, just out of guilt. While he maintains that he doesn't believe "anyone in government is maliciously trying to make things difficult for a particular industry," Conway says that, "once again, the restaurant industry has an obligation to serve its guests -- and that doesn't necessarily mean being the health police."
Cohn, of the National Restaurant Association, who routinely works with the FDA on issues of nutrition guidelines, sees a parallel between the current low-carb trend and the low-fat culture of 10 years ago. "Do you remember when people used to think they could eat a packet of low-fat [labeled] cookies and they'd lose weight? And they didn't -- they'd gain it?" In 1993, the FDA defined a low-fat food as one with 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
Undercutting the Restaurant Association's general message of healthy eating, Cohn admits there's still "a huge fight between the low-fat people and the low-carb people." And, she believes, value for money is still a factor that drives people toward huge portions, and the tendency to overeat. ""Calories in' still have to equal "calories out' if a diet's going to work."
That is, perhaps, the difficult part. According to Mintel's survey, 40 percent of dieters polled claim they only manage to stay on their regimens for a few months at a time. For special occasions, it adds, 67 percent are prepared to drop the bar a little. And a recent Wharton study conducted by Barbara Kahn and Brian Wansink discovered that the perception of increased choice -- whether in varieties of jelly beans or extrapolated into wide-ranging menus or lunch buffets -- caused the participants to respond to "marketing cues" and to eat more.
In the meantime, businesses who have invested in labeling themselves with the trend continue to believe that it's more than a flash in the pan. But, without federal intervention, they have been left to find their own ways to market their version and to make it seem legitimate.
Jeremy Duclut is the alumnus of Le Bec-Fin who now runs the kitchen at Loie, a frequent haunt of both food lovers and late-night party-goers around Rittenhouse Square. In accordance with the bistro food that he serves up nightly, he unveiled his newly devised low-carb menu in March. It wasn't his idea.
"No, no, I don't eat that way. I am French, you see? I couldn't live without the bread, the pastry," he admits jokingly. "But lots of people don't eat bread anymore."
A couple of members of his staff were on the diet, and the management noticed how many dishes were constantly being customized. Duclut recalls that it was nearly 50 percent of orders. Buns were being thrown away from burgers, and caramelized onions avoided because of all their sugar.
After a couple of months of work, Duclut had managed to adapt most of the major dishes on the menu: There's a regular steak, and a low-carb one, served with more leafy greens and no fries; there are two versions of seared salmon, which on inspection turn out to be exactly the same dish on the two lists. Isn't this time-consuming in the kitchen? "Not really," he explains. "With low-carb, how you cook the food doesn't change. You can fry, use oil or butter, which makes it easy for us."
The only noticeable addition is the single-digit carb score beside each dish. Duclut himself decided to instigate a self-regulated measurement system, based on a nutrition reference book, Barrons Quick Check Food Facts, and his own recipe.
Manager Kevin Kelly explains, "We managed to keep the prices comparable, so the customer wouldn't notice any difference." (This is the case, even though Duclut adjusted the daily "builds," or produce supplies, to bring in more of certain vegetables such as spinach. Any additional costs aren't passed on to the customer.) In short, the new menu feels and costs just the same as the regular one, with only the nudging carb-count reminder. There's no way of knowing how many diners are drawn in by the certainty that this meal is like a good deed.
But Kelly can't complain. "Since we started it, I've pulled the checks to have a look at how it's doing. I reckon that one in three tables includes someone who's ordered from the new menu. That means, maybe 1 in 12 customers?"
But are these customers really low-carbers? "I'd say a few are. But most just come in, notice the other menu and think it looks interesting," Kelly says. Sitting under posters of voluptuous Loie Fuller, the restaurant's famous namesake, who looks out from various courtesan costumes, Kelly wonders aloud about the seemingly conflicting responses to diet as they play out every night under her gaze. "You know, sometimes," he confides, "someone will be all excited to order from the new menu. And then I see them sitting there, eating bread. And I think, why do that? People are funny."