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Gathering the Ingredients



When one thinks of Omaha, Neb., Mexican food isn’t likely the first thing to come to mind. But ask a native Omahan about local Mexican fare and you might learn about Los Compayes, a local restaurant that is famous for its salsa bar, freshly-made tortillas, tasty tacos, burritos and gorditas.

Along with being one of the top spots in town for Mexican dishes, Los Compayes could wind up playing a vital role in crafting healthier children’s menus at restaurants across the country. 
Researchers at the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition are in the opening stages of conducting a pilot project that will study the effect of placing healthy dishes on Los Compayes’s kids’ menu. While at first it might not seem like a groundbreaking idea —many restaurants have such menu options, after all —the researchers will be a part of the process from the start.
Center Executive Director Amy Yaroch and her team will work with Los Compayes owners Eduardo Torres and Claudia Newton, as well as parents and kids who eat at the restaurant, to craft healthy (and hopefully tasty) menu items. Once the new dishes are unveiled, researchers will regularly conduct five-minute interviews with patrons to help ensure that the restaurant has a healthy menu that’s also successful sales-wise.
As chain restaurants prepare to put calorie counts on their menus and others begin to offer lower-calorie fare, many proprietors are struggling with the fear that good-for-you choices won’t sell. And the worry among many in the childhood obesity movement is that if it turns out customers don’t buy healthier menu items early on, many restaurants will stop offering them. 
When one Omaha hospital worked with local restaurants to introduce “heart-healthy” menu items, for example, they found that “the moment they started putting the heart-healthy icon next to it, sales dropped,” notes Danelle Myer, the center’s marketing consultant. Yaroch adds that people look for taste and value as their top reason for ordering certain dishes, and assume if it’s healthy it’s not going to taste as good.
But the researchers are confident that healthy can mean tasty, and tasty can lead to profits. 
Along with working with Los Compayes on taste tests, they’ll monitor sales and interview customers to get “their impression of what they thought of the menu, and what drew them in to make the decisions that they did,” says researcher Courtney Pinard. Researchers also will spend time promoting the new menu and figuring out the best way to sell it to customers. 
Nearby restaurants also will be surveyed to see whether they might be willing to make similar changes. Eventually, the research team plans to unveil best practices for all restaurants to follow.
“We want it to succeed, and we want to show it’s mutually beneficial,” Pinard says.
Yaroch, who has also served on advisory committees for groups including Salud America, notes that the study’s impact could be wide-reaching. Los Compayes is located in a low-income, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, reflecting a demographic that faces unique challenges in combating obesity, including access to fresh and healthy food.
Should it succeed, the study could expand efforts in other communities and influence local and national policy related to healthy food access, Yaroch says. “It seems like this will compliment that environmental work, help gather information that will hopefully help in the mission to reverse obesity,” she adds.