Local restaurants make eating healthy quick

Published 11:23 pm Saturday, May 9, 2009

NATCHEZ — No one is immune to trends and that includes quick service restaurants.

That became even more apparent when KFC rolled out its newest chicken dish — Kentucky Grilled Chicken — in mid-April.

Jason McNeill, part owner of the Natchez KFC location and director of operations for Hannons Foods Services which operates 19 KFC locations said the new product is the culmination of years of trial and error.

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“The company has been working on something like this for several years and have made several attempts to have a better-for-you line of products,” McNeill said.

But what is different about the new grilled chicken product, McNeill said, is the response.

“Its huge, absolutely huge. We’ve had massive amounts of sales result from the product,” McNeill said.

But McNeill said, introducing the new product isn’t just about selling more chicken. He said it is an important part of serving the needs of his customers.

He said for several years, customers have been looking for healthier alternatives at quick services restaurants.

“This is a part of a trend we have been seeing for a few years now where Americans are looking for alternatives,” McNeill said. “I don’t think we are going to see it go away.”

And because of the early success of the product, McNeill is even more encouraged that people are embracing a healthy lifestyle and choosing healthy food alternatives.

“There has been no product since the original recipe that has been this successful,” McNeill said. “In some places, we are seeing it outsell the fried chicken. It being a healthy product, it should sustain its popularity and be a large percentage of our business.”

A grilled chicken breast has 180 calories and 4 grams of fat compared to the 370 calories and 21 grams of fat in the fried version.

And despite the serious slim down in calories and fat, McNeill said the grilled chicken’s taste is top notch.

“My friends are saying ‘There is no way this chicken can be good for me,’” he said

KFC’s grilled chicken was just added recently, but at McDonalds, Gary Small, owner of the Natchez McDonalds, said the addition of healthier options has been going on for years.

Small said two of the first changes McDonalds implemented was changing to all white meat chicken for its chicken products and using zero trans-fat oil for the restaurants fried foods.

Now they have added apples, fruit and yogurt parfaits and additional salads to make their menu even healthier.

“People have to make those choices to eat healthier,” Small said. “I think we have put enough out there over the last few years where you make those choices at McDonalds and not feel guilty about it.”

Small said in addition to revamping the menu, McDonalds has also made an effort to make the nutrition information for all of its products assessable to it patrons.

“On the tray liners inside the restaurant, on the back side, there is a list of all the nutritional information for all of our menu items,” Small said. “And McDonalds is about to start putting the information on the boxes and wraps for our food.”

And for those who want to be prepared, Small said the McDoanlds Web site, www.mcdonalds.com, has a “Bag-A-Meal” option that allows user to assemble a meal or their choice and find out the total fat, calories, sodium and other nutrition facts before placing the order.

Small said he has seen a transition in the way his customers are ordering since the installation of more health conscious foods. He said at first the change was evident with mothers who liked the option of ordering apples in their children’s happy meal, but now all types of customers are ordering healthier.

“What amazes me is seeing the construction guys come in and say ‘let me get a salad today, or I’ll have a milk today,” Small said.

Nan Wilson, owner of the North Natchez Subway location on D’Evereux Drive and the Vidalia Subway, said the her restaurant didn’t have to change its menu very much to appeal to a health conscious crowd. They just had to promote it.

She said their basic cold-cut sandwiches have always been a healthy option and adding fresh vegetables only ups the nutritious value.

“At Subway, eating healthy is really easy,” she said.

It was made easier by adding raisins and apples to the menu, Wilson said.

And like McNeill at KFC, Wilson said Subway is always looking for ways to serve its customers better.

“It is a way to get people to have better eating habits and to serve those who already do,” she said.