Supersize me?

The ethics of restaurant portions.

Chris MacDonald 1
(Photo: Geoff Fitzgerald)

(Photo: Geoff Fitzgerald)

Should restaurants aim to serve smaller portions? Many are doing so, these days, and it’s easy to see why. The trend is partly motivated by calorie-labelling requirements that are now in force in some jurisdictions. But there are other reasons, too.

Regardless of regulations, smaller portions are in many ways an appealing proposition. Other things being equal, smaller portions mean fewer calories, which is good for the waistline. And, other things being equal, smaller portions mean less money spent on ingredients, which is good for restaurants’ profits. Looked at that way, smaller portions look like a win-win.

But obviously there are limits to that argument. Some customers may appreciate smaller portions, just as some will choose ‘lite’ beer, child-size portions, and salad with dressing on the side. But plenty of other customers still appreciate bigger helpings, with extra cheese, please. So while offering choices in terms of serving size may be a no-brainer, smaller portions generally can’t be assumed to be a crowd-pleaser at all.

An argument could be made that there’s a social obligation here. Regardless of what individual customers want, it’s pretty clear that as a society we could all stand to eat less. North American waistlines keep expanding, and the effects that is having on our health and healthcare costs are by now pretty familiar. Do restaurants have an obligation to help stem the tide of the obesity epidemic? Do they have such an obligation even if smaller portions drive customers to the restaurant down the street, the one that’s more than willing to supersize it?

This is a question that pits social obligation against a company’s interest in making a profit. But note, of course, that “profit” here is a misleading term; if it is to be used at all, we need to understand it broadly. Not all restaurants are mega-chains like McDonalds and Subway, and not everyone who benefits from restaurant profits is a stereotypical wealthy shareholder. For your average restaurant or even small chain, “profit” might really just mean “staying in business.” For a small business, staying in business can itself be an obligation; staying in business means fulfilling obligations to investors, employees, suppliers, and creditors.

Add to that the limited impact of unilateral action. Few if any restaurants or even chains have the ability to make a dent in the obesity epidemic. Your typical restaurant owner is faced with the fact that downsizing portions just isn’t going to have any real effect. Only a collective effort can do that, and that can only really happen through regulation.

The other interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive route is for restaurants to get creative. They can look for ways to reduce portion sizes—and hence calories—in ways that aren’t going to be noticed and resented by those customers who are accustomed to judging restaurant servings according to a ‘bigger is better’ mentality. I’m not suggesting anything deceptive here. But if there are differences in composition or process or plating that can leave customers feeling well-fed without dumping excess calories into their systems, that seems to be a good thing.

One last note. If you’re running a restaurant and the best way you can think of to bring in customers is to serve gut-busting portions, then shame on you. You’re just not as good at your job as you should be. The very best restaurants typically have very small—but incredibly satisfying—servings. Clearly there’s more than one way to make customers happy. So while it’s hard to defend an obligation to promote social welfare in a way that risks profits, it’s much easier to say that restaurants have an obligation not to take the easy way out. After all, innovation, efficiency, and creativity are core market values, aren’t they?

One comment on “Supersize me?

  1. Interesting read. Ill be sure to share with our restaurant clients at ReservationBooks.com I am interested in knowing how they would feel about the social obligation.

    Reply

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