Locally sourced food drives demand for healthy menu items at R.I. eateries

Restaurant goers are becoming ever-more picky when it comes to healthy food, and the trend is having a disparate impact on menus in the Ocean State.

The National Restaurant Association this year released a report saying seven in 10 adult respondents to a national survey said the availability of healthy menu options would make them choose one restaurant over another.

The trend is enhanced by a growing demand of other dietary requirements, including gluten-free, vegetarian and even low-fat options.

“It’s certainly a factor,” said David Dadekian, founder of Eat Drink RI, a food and beverage advocate and promoter.

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Dadekian said the number of restaurants offering healthy food has already been growing in Rhode Island, as consumer demand for locally sourced food has been driving the shift.

He also points to some of the stalwart Rhode Island dining chains, including Gregg’s Restaurants & Taverns, operated by Allied Realty Co., based in Warwick, and Chelo’s Hometown Bar and Grille, operated by Chelo’s of East Providence Inc., as statewide examples of establishments that are offering a greater variety of healthy and dietary-specific food options.

But Dadekian also challenges the national statistics, saying consumers – especially when it comes to habits of personal health – often say one thing and do another.

“As much as there’s a growing demand for healthier fare in general, especially compared with the past, Friskie Fries is about to open its third spot, and all they serve is fries with toppings,” he said with a laugh. “They’re certainly not stepping down from the strategy.”

Indeed, Friskie Fries LLC, a food truck that’s become so popular it’s opening a storefront in downtown Providence, is often identifiable by the long lines of hungry customers that are clamoring for its hearty offerings.

Even former President Barack Obama in 2014 visited Gregg’s in Providence for a surprise lunch with then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gina M. Raimondo, and ordered the restaurant’s famous “Death by Chocolate” cake and a cheeseburger to go.

The restaurant, however, does offer a “Lite Pineapple Cream Pie” on its menu, which is described as a low-fat dessert “for those of you watching your calories.”

The National Restaurant Association last year released a separate report showing more than 70 percent of adults are also trying to eat healthier at restaurants than they did two years ago. The report said locally sourced meats and seafoods, locally grown produce, environmental sustainability and healthful kids’ meals were top culinary trends for the year.

“Restaurant operators are taking notice, with more than eight in 10 saying their guests pay more attention to the nutrition content of food now than they did two years ago,” according to the trade group.

The demand also has real economic consequences, as the U.S. Commerce Department in 2015 reported U.S. consumers were spending more at restaurants than on groceries for the first time since the federal agency started collecting data in 1992.

The exact reasons for this new spending trend are debatable, but some explanations include millennials – on balance – eat out more often than their parents, and are becoming a larger percentage of the overall consumer population.

There’s also a greater chance now than before for both adults in a typical household to be in the workforce, reducing the overall time families spend at home.

Regardless, the potential for restaurants to capitalize off the increased volume of dollars spent is greater now than in the past, and healthy menu options – in some instances – could act as an incentive to drawing in more customers.

Despite the dynamic, however, many new restaurants opening in Providence are having success without tailoring to those demands.

In July, Bucktown on West Fountain Street was named a finalist for this year’s Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant. The casual bar-restaurant serves “craveable Southern,” which includes such dishes as hush puppies, with honey butter, and chicken and waffles.

Likewise, Durk’s Bar-B-Q, a barbeque joint that opened on Thayer Street nine months ago, has been highly reviewed and receives high marks on social media.

‘The response has been incredible,” said Steve Durkee, who opened the restaurant with his partner Jay Carr of The Eddy, a downtown bar, and chef Jake Rojas of Tallulah’s Taqueria, a popular Mexican restaurant on the East Side of Providence.

Durkee pointed to the menu’s vegetarian sides as an option for customers who don’t eat meat but is ultimately confident people in the mood for barbeque are going to come eat barbeque.

“People go for what they like,” he said. “And when you have the best of it, they go more often.”

Eli Sherman is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Sherman@PBN.com, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.