Calorie displays don't scare Starbucks

Starbucks customer Matt holds a coffee drink.

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: The new health care reform law requires a restaurant chain with 20 or more outlets to post the number of calories in every dish right on the menu. Surprisingly, coffee giant Starbucks lobbied lawmakers to pass that bill. And it did it, thanks in part to lessons it learned when New York required nearly the same thing. Reporter Jill Barshay has more.


Jill Barshay: Margo Wootan waged an eight-year war to get restaurants to list calories on the menu. She's the Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She says the entire restaurant industry fought her every inch of the way. But after a year of counting calories on New York menus, things changed.

Margo Wootan: Cause once restaurants had the experience of actually analysing their menu items, posting it on their menu boards, seeing how their customers reacted, I think they finally realized that the sky wasn't going to fall down, that they were going to still be able to do business.

Starbucks found posting calories might even be good for business.

Phillip Leslie is a Stanford economist. He studied more than a 100 million Starbucks cash register receipts. He found some unexpected things about how customers view those creamy, gooey caramel macchiatos:

Phillip Leslie: You're pleasantly surprised that the calories in the beverages are not as high as you thought they were. On the other hand, you're unpleasantly surprised that there are more calories in the bagel than you thought you were getting.

And Starbucks customers reacted accordingly. I bumped into Hillary, clutching a soy latte, outside a Starbucks on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side:

Hillary: I've stuck to the same drink but I've just cut out the treat that used to go along with my coffee.

Food sales are down at Starbucks, but the company's selling more coffee. Professor Leslie says Starbucks is even pulling in customers from the competition.

Leslie: For the ones with a Dunkin Donuts nearby, they actually experienced an increase in revenue by around about 3 percent.

But Starbucks says it isn't rushing to post its calories right away. The business benefits only percolate if everyone else has to post, too. And the government isn't expected to put the law into effect until 2013.

In New York, I'm Jill Barshay for Marketplace.

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