Aug. 21, 2012 at 7:28 AM ET
Fast food surges through Alec Armbruster's veins. His father, an advertising expert, has consulted for McDonald's, while Alec, 18, has stuffed many of his teen years with a "once-every-three-days" Taco Bell habit -- heavy on the soft tacos.
"If I go to Taco Bell, I skip all the healthy menu items because the other food is a lot better," said Armbruster, a college student in Sarasota, Fla. "I never read the calories on those things."
His age, gender and large appetite are typical of the core demographic that drives the business of Taco Bell and most fast-food chains. But times are changing.
Last month Taco Bell rolled out a veggie-laced menu line, Cantina Bell, entering the fray with quick-serve rivals that have launched a new, nutritional arms race: trying to out-healthy one another.
McDonald's is touting its "under 400 calories" items, including the venerable Filet-O-Fish sandwich. Burger King has just added smoothies and salads to its menu. Wendy's is pitching a new mobile app that lets customers personalize meals based on the number of calories they choose.
"The new battleground is shifting from 'value' to 'better for you' options," said Nick Castaldo, senior vice president of marketing at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, an East Coast chain, and a lecturer at NOVA Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Some of it is defensive, trying to appease nutrition critics - especially as the government's nanny-state rules intensify," he said. "But some of it is a competitive reaction to the business inroads made by fast-casual chains such as Chipotle and Einstein Bros. Bagels, which used 'freshness' as a differentiator and a proxy for 'health,' against traditional fast food."
But will these heart-happy changes truly risk losing core customers with their deep passions for burgers, fries and Nachos BellGrande? Or in fast-food speak, is Taco Bell at risk of losing its SHUs, the "Super Heavy Users"?
"They’re not going to violate that relationship by going all healthy," said Adam Armbruster, Alec's dad, and a partner a ESA & Co., an ad strategy firm. "But at the same time, they want to get the soccer mom in a hurry, driving a Volvo with high income."
Armbruster said the low-fat menu items are mainly a nod to mothers who otherwise would drive past the fast-food joints even though her kids may be screaming for them.
"She wants the speed and convenience but she’s not willing to do the calorie intake," Armbruster said. "Suddenly, she can be going into Arby’s or going into KFC."
And she doesn't have to look behind her to see if other soccer moms are casting judgmental looks her way.
"I would assume that the salad category expansion (at some fast food chains) has resulted in incremental business -- more female appeal and permission for more frequency," Castaldo said. But he added that most of the healthier fast-food menu options probably have little lasting appeal.
Indeed, the heavy hitters of the fast-food industry are not expected to forsake the diehard customers responsible for their profits.
For example, while Burger King dangles its strawberry and mango smoothies, customers also have the option of a triple Whopper that can be built five beef patties tall with a whopping (sorry) 1,600 calories and 1,250 milligrams of sodium. For dessert they can try the new bacon sundae (510 calories, 670 milligrams of sodium). McDonald's now boasts 44 menu items with less than 400 calories but plenty with far more, including the Angus bacon and cheese burger with its 790 calories and 2,070 milligrams of sodium.
And while there's a berry-almond salad on the summer menu at Wendy's, the focus of its brand advertising is "on freshness and quality, not health benefit," company spokesman Bob Bertini said. The focus is not on Wendy's hit Baconator burger (970 calories, 2,020 milligrams of sodium).
This is not the first time Taco Bell took a run at healthier fare. Seven years ago the company unveiled a low-cal, low-fat "Fresco Menu" that lets customers remove cheese or cream-based sauces.
Asked whether the new Cantina Bell line is sign that Fresco didn't connect with its most loyal fans, Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch said no.
"We still offer it," he said. "We do have folks who come to us looking for lower-calorie options."
But Cantina "is really focused on layers of flavors. We don’t market it as a lower-calorie item," Poetsch added. "What we’ve noticed is people are shifting from this concept that food is fuel to one where food is experience. That was the insight that drove the Cantina menu."
Taco Bell is a "nutritional hard case," Castaldo said. While mainstram chains like McDonald's have a family-friendly appeal, Taco Bell's core audience has always been young males.
"I've heard some good things about that (Cantina) product, but it is definitely a brand-position bender for that chain," Castaldo said.
Just ask core customers like Alec Armbruster, whose father says he "can recite the entire Taco Bell menu."
In fact the younger Armbruster said he has not eaten at Taco Bell in about three months -- a diet-change choice -- but he was dubious about the Cantina line.
"That like a salad-looking thing?" he asked. "I guess I would order one if I wanted to try to be healthy and if I didn’t have enough money to pay for a healthy meal some place else."
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