Two men are sitting at a diner counter in a January New Yorker cartoon, one with a five o’clock shadow eating a burger, the other in a lab coat consulting a clipboard.
“If it’s all the same to you,” says the guy with the burger, “I’d rather eat this not knowing what the latest science suggests.”
That seems to be the case at some Albuquerque eateries – according to local chefs and restaurant managers, their customers are fine not knowing how many calories are on their plates. That’s not because the customers don’t want the science, but because they’re dining out for a good time and don’t care, the restaurant staffers say.
The cartoon contradicts, however, what an Associated Press-GfK poll that was conducted in December revealed: More than half of the 1,010 people surveyed online said they would prefer calorie information on menus.
Specifically, 56 percent said they favored it as a requirement on fast food restaurant menus, and 54 percent said they favored it as a requirement on sit-down restaurant menus, according to an AP article published in the Jan. 2 Journal.
“People may pass on that bacon double cheeseburger if they know it has hundreds of calories,” the article states, “and, in turn, restaurants may make their foods healthier to keep calorie counts down.”
The poll came out shortly after the Food and Drug Administration announced that restaurants that sell prepared foods and have at least 20 locations must post calorie counts on their menus and menu boards by November 2015.
Restaurateurs from around Albuquerque – both from chains that fall under the new FDA rule, and smaller, locally owned fine dining restaurants that won’t – weighed in.
A place for celebration
At the independently owned Artichoke Café, in the 400 block of Central SE, assistant manager Bradley Chapman said the menu doesn’t offer calorie breakdowns because people usually don’t ask. Even if it were required to, he said, the numbers would be approximate because no two plates are the same.
“We do everything to order, so we don’t measure everything,” Chapman said. “We do a spoon of this, a spoon of that.”
After checking with the chef, he said that making public the caloric information would be feasible, but it’s not in much demand at the restaurant, which prepares New American cuisine using French bistro techniques.
“When people are at the Artichoke Café, they’re celebrating,” he said. “They know they are splurging a bit. If you’re out to have an indulgent dinner, people aren’t concerned with calorie count.”
In the six years he has worked there, he added, “I’ve never had one person ask about the calorie count.”
A special occasion
That’s the case, too, at Seasons Rotisserie and Grill in Old Town.
The grill features an exhibition kitchen, so people can see their meals prepared before them. But how much fat and cholesterol are they getting in those meals?
“Customers don’t tend to ask,” according to sous chef David Tsabetsaye. The restaurant has catered to a slightly older clientele for almost two decades, who aren’t calorie counting because they come for something different than what they’d eat at home.
“Some people come here for special occasions,” he said. “It’s not part of their regular diet. It’s not feasible for people to come here every day. (There’s) butter here, heavy cream there, so people who come are not thinking it’s the healthiest place to eat.”
Online, or on the menu?
Diners are a bit more curious at Rudy’s Country Store & Barbecue, which would have to comply with the FDA rules. The chain has approximately three dozen locations in southwestern states of Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Arizona, and two in New Mexico – one on Carlisle near Interstate 40, the other on Coors and Alameda.
At the westside location, that planning wasn’t yet in the works. General manager Santiago Romero said some customers want to know the calorie values from the menu, which includes Texas-style barbecue ribs, brisket, sausage, turkey, chicken and pork loin, along with sides like coleslaw and beans. “Some customers do come in and request that,” he said, “but it’s online on our website.”
Clicking the half-pound brisket option on the website’s menu yields the brisket’s nutrition content: 640 calories, 100 from fat, as well as 41 grams of protein, and no dietary fibers or sugars.
Romero said he didn’t know yet about plans to post calorie breakdowns on, for example, a chalkboard near the restaurant entrance come November.
Meanwhile, Bravo! Cucina Italiana, an upscale chain restaurant in ABQ Uptown, is already partway there. With hundreds of locations nationwide, the eatery will fall under the new rule.
Now, Bravo! offers meals with 600 calories or less on its “Lighter Side of Rome” menu, listing the calorie count, according to manager Korey Shrader. He added that he wasn’t sure why calories for richer platters are not also printed on the menus.
Ryan Hallum, general manager and executive chef of Marcello’s Chophouse, an independent restaurant near Bravo! also in ABQ Uptown, said he thinks restaurants that are part of larger companies can and should offer calorie information without too much fuss. They can use the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, where calorie values of various foods are available. But “it’s hard to find the time to sit down to do it,” he said.
It would also be a challenge for mom-and-pop restaurants that offer daily specials. “If every time they put a special together, then they have to go to the USDA website and approximate the caloric information or purchase an expensive computer program that will do it for them, it’s less likely they are going to do it,” he said.
By contrast, larger dining establishments may find it easier. “An executive chef (at a larger eatery) has all the time, and an office, and the resources to get it done,” he said.
When asked if he’d do it if it were required of non-chain restaurants like his, he said: “We’re here to please the people, so if that were something we were told we had to do, we’d get it done.”