What’s Secret About the Secret Menu? It’s Healthful

For consumers, ordering off a “secret” menu promoted mostly through word of mouth means gaining instant access to an exclusive club of in-the-know guests. For operators, it’s one of the cheapest marketing and brand-building tools around.

A secret menu prompts enthusiastic fans to take to social media and other online forums to share—and sometimes brag about—the times they’ve gone rogue with their order.

Many of these secret creations, predictably, are indulgent or whimsical, letting guests add a little extra customized oomph to a treat occasion. Consider the 3×3 and 4×4 burgers burger on In-N-Out’s “Not So Secret Menu”: three or four 100% beef patties, respectively, stacked with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, special spread and optional onions on a freshly baked bun. At Starbucks, reportedly, there’s the Cotton Candy Frappuccino, consisting of a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino with a couple of pumps of raspberry syrup. And at McDonald’s in March, customers can order a McLeprechaun: the chain’s seasonal Shamrock Shake blended with a chocolate shake.

So it was interesting in January to see bakery-café giant Panera Bread’s take on a secret menu. Launching on a trial basis in New York and being called a “hidden” menu—a list of items can be found on Panera’s website—the menu’s surprising standout feature is that all of the selections cater to health-seekers.

Among the six new lower-calorie, low-carb items are the Power Breakfast Egg White Bowl with Roasted Turkey, the Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad, and the Power Steak Lettuce Wraps. (All six have the moniker “power” in front of them.) Without offering descriptions of the items—or touting them as healthful, better-for-you, etc.—Panera’s online hidden menu showcases a picture of each selection paired prominently with its nutrition counts.

Panera Chief Concept Officer Scott Davis told U.S. News and World Report that the items should appeal to people following the popular Paleolithic (aka Paleo) diet, which emphasizes lean meats, seafood, and nonstarchy vegetables and fruits and avoids dairy products, refined sugars and excess salt. The items, however, aren’t tagged on Panera’s website as Paleo-friendly, freeing Panera from a formal association with what some might consider merely another fad diet.

Panera’s hidden menu takes “stealth health” to a new level. For in-the-know Panera guests looking for more-healthful choices, the new menu gives them new options—and in so doing can help spur that invaluable brand loyalty. But without an expensive marketing push behind the health-focused selections, Panera isn’t spending valuable ad dollars trying to reach a fraction of its core audience. (Panera has put its weight, of late, behind promoting its new line of pasta entrees.)

In a survey for Technomic’s 2012 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, 64 percent of consumers said it’s important to them to eat healthy these days and pay attention to nutrition, but only 29 percent said they consider health and nutrition when ordering food at restaurants. Health-seeking consumers can be the veto vote against a concept that they perceive as lacking sufficient healthful choices, but dining out remains a splurge-worthy occasion for most guests. It will be intriguing to watch whether a big deal in healthful menus results from not making a big deal out of the menus themselves.

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Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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