How to Open a Healthy Restaurant

Are Healthy Restaurant Concepts Successful?

Person eating healthy food with chopsticks at a restaurant.

Karrie Zhu / Pixabay

With the growing obesity epidemic in the United States, more and more people are looking for healthier options when dining out. This has led to a rise of healthy restaurant concepts that offer everything from organic vegan fare to locally sourced meats and produce.

But do healthy restaurant concepts really work? Still a small segment of the restaurant industry, healthy restaurant concepts offer many benefits but also come with risks. Those considering opening a healthy restaurant should carefully study the local market and demographics. The concept can work, but only in the right market and the right location.

Customer Demographics for Healthy Restaurants

One of the biggest factors in the rise of healthier restaurant menus and healthy restaurant concepts are millennials. Ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-30s, Millennials outpace baby boomers in their spending and have largely shaped post-recession eating patterns in the United States.

Millennial diners want to know where their food comes from and how it was raised or grown. According to a report from the Nielsen Perishables Group, 30% of Millennials eat foods that are certified as organic foods. With more buying power than the baby boomers, Millennials will continue to shape the American restaurant industry. If they demand more healthy options, restaurants will follow.

If they want local foods or organic foods or plant-based menus, restaurants will build to suit. Aside from age, the demographic for successful healthy restaurant concepts like Lyfe Kitchen and Sweetgreens are largely white, urban and upper-middle class. It’s important to note that this factor limits the areas for successful healthy restaurant concepts to take root. 

Many factors come into play when developing a successful healthy-concept restaurant, and the following highlights provide some points to consider:

  • Millenials are driving the healthy eating craze with 30 percent eating organic

  • Leverages the habits of Millennials, who are outspending baby boomers

  • Offers consumers more low-carb, gluten-free, and clean-eating options

  • Boosts the local economy while leveraging the healthy-eating trend

  • Supports local organic growers and other suppliers

  • Health officials embrace healthy restaurant concepts

  • Limited customer demographic is mainly white, urban, upper-middle-class 

  • Ever-present risk of shifting consumer tastes

  • Fresh produce and local meats cost more than canned, frozen and pre-made foods

  • True demand for healthy menu items still up for debate

  • Could overestimate actual demand for a healthy food concept and overcommit financially to the venture

Benefits of Healthy Restaurant Concepts 

Healthy restaurant concepts offer restaurateurs many benefits including marketing opportunities, boosting the local economy and positive consumer experience. Because health, in general, is trending right now—such as clean eating, gluten-free, low carb, no-carb, and other trends—marketing a healthy restaurant concept has never been easier. Consumers want healthy food that tastes good and is affordable, but not necessarily cheap in price.

Healthy restaurant menus often feature local foods, helping bolster nearby farmers and growers and keeping dollars in the local economy. In the age of the health-conscious consumer who wants to know where and how their food was grown, healthy restaurant concepts have the ability to reassure them that they are making a good choice for themselves and their environment.

Buying local makes Millennial consumers, in particular, feel good about where and how they spend their money. And this is a definite benefit since local foods keep money in the community, often taste better and are of better quality than food that’s been shipped thousands of miles, and leave a smaller environmental footprint.

Healthy restaurant concepts are also likely to be embraced by public health officials, who have long warned about the dangers of fast food and its effect on the population. There are numerous movements across the United States to recognize restaurants that promote healthy eating, including the Blue Zone certification, which focuses on calories and portion size.

Drawbacks to the Healthy Menu Option

While there are plenty of benefits to opening a healthy restaurant, there are also specific drawbacks including cost, smaller market share and shifting consumer habits. Healthy restaurant menus typically offer lots of fresh produce, local meat, and poultry, and organically grown produce. These are all typically more expensive than frozen, canned, or premade foods that have a longer shelf life.

The demand for healthy menu items is also debatable. While many people say they want healthier options when they eat out, will they actually order the healthier option? There have been numerous studies on consumers eating patterns and one of the biggest findings is that people will make healthier choices if they are presented in a certain way.

This means for restaurants that serve a wide array of menu choices, if a customer has the option of choosing a green salad with chicken or a burger with fries, he will most likely take the burger with fries—especially if there is a picture of the burger or it is prominently displayed within the menu layout.

This supports the argument that healthy items don’t sell. Tweaking a menu to place healthier options in the ‘prime real estate’ section of a menu and limiting unhealthy options are just two ways that restaurants can design their menu to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Are Healthy Restaurant Concepts Successful?

The rise of successful healthy restaurant chains like Lyfe Kitchens and Sweetgreens is promising. But the bottom line is that healthy restaurant concepts are a tiny part of a much larger restaurant industry dominated by burgers and fries and oversized entrees. If someone is thinking of opening their own healthy restaurant, they need to make sure that the appeal is there.

They might think a menu based entirely on raw vegetables will sell like gangbusters, only to find out that the customer base for that type of menu is teeny tiny. As with any other restaurant, specific risks include overestimating the appeal of the concept, failing to assess the local market and determine a niche for the concept, and spending too much too fast.

All of these risks can be mitigated with a well-written business plan. Also being mindful of start-up costs, choosing the right location and creating a strong marketing plan can help a new restaurant—healthy or not—get off to a good start.

Customers Feel Good or Buyer's Regret

Healthy restaurant concepts are gaining in popularity, showing in many different forms ranging from fine dining restaurants to food trucks. Unlike a fast food meal eaten on the go, a healthy restaurant meal can make a customer feel good about spending their money on the meal.

However, while there might be a buyer's regret for having scarfed down a plate of greasy fries or fattening pizza, healthy restaurant concepts are still a gamble. Like any new restaurant, owners should do their homework to assess if a big enough customer base exists to support their healthy eats concept. Otherwise, it might be the restaurant owner who suffers from a buyer’s regret.