Anglian Country Inns managing director James Nye estimated the whole process of adding calorie counts on menus to cost the pub company around £50,000.
The calorie labelling regulations, which came into force on 6 April 2022, imposed a real challenge for operators, with many having to design menus and redevelop dishes.
The energy content must be displayed in kilocalories (kcal), reference the size of the portion to which the calorie information relates and display the statement ‘adults need around 2,000 kcal a day’.
There are nine fresh kitchens across Anglian Country Inns’ estate, with senior staff granted great autonomy designing menus at each site.
According to Nye, the business had “literally just crept into the banding for calorie counting”, and the legislation had put “so much pressure” on teams.
Whether it was working was a “cloudy and complex” matter, he believed. This was because it was based on causation and correlation arguments, as consumer trends were veering towards healthy choices anyway.
He added: “What we can empirically say is, it's caused us absolute nightmares to try and get the level of accuracy.
“First of all was the cost of it, so we've had to buy software that we're using, and the implementation of putting this into our kitchens, especially with the nature of bespoke menus at each site.”
This product was Kitchen CUT – a software where chefs uploaded ingredients and weighed out dishes to measure calories.
Nye continued: “It’s hard enough to run kitchens, especially with [the fact that] we have to meet an incredibly high level of compliance for what we do.
“This is just an extra burden of red tape.”
He said that it added to financial pressures such as inflation and rising wages as well as killed chefs’ creativity.
Nye recalled this time last year: “We’ve just come out the back of Covid, everyone was running on half tank of gas anyway, because it's been incredibly busy time.
“So, it was just the burden of having to introduce this on top of all the other things we had to do. It just felt like a real frustration.”
There had also been pushback from customers, who didn’t want calories written on their menus. “People come to celebrate and enjoy themselves,” he said. “I don’t think it seems to be a one size fits all solution.”
Nye also doubted the impact of calorie legislation as a means to tackle the obesity crisis. “At our level of food, it’s caused a lot of consternation,” he said. “We’ve also had to shelve other projects because of the time and effort to put in the system in a very short space of time.”
Being a chef these days, according to Nye, was not just about food, but also about compliance. This was a “massively unnecessary burden that goes to our individual chefs,” he added. It was one that had “little tangible output.”
He also believed the measures were killing creativity. “There's a massive shortage of experienced chefs in our industry, and things like this – it's extra red tape,” he said. “It just becomes a massive burden.”
This also had consequences for the sector’s staffing shortage. Nye believed prospective chefs would be put off by the fact their job involved looking at data on a spreadsheet as opposed to training young chefs to create food. “It takes away the focus from the exciting part of the job.”
He estimated the whole process of putting calories on menus had cost the business around £50,000. But the biggest burden was the labour cost, as they were having to allocate more shifts to cope with the extra workload.
Bicester-based business Peach Pubs had also been hit by the legislation. The pub company’s marketing director Rebekha Wilkins said: “It’s quite a timely exercise to ensure every menu has calorie information available for guests and yet I’m unsure as to how helpful it has been."
She added that guests were usually out to enjoy themselves, so weren't too interested in the calorie information. What's more, staff hadn't noticed any changes to guest behaviour due to the legislation.
UKHospitality chief executive said: “The introduction of mandatory calorie labelling on menus a year ago represented a significant cost to eligible businesses at a time when we had just started to see energy costs increase sharply and while many were still recovering from the pandemic.
"The cost and operational challenges of these regulations remain a significant burden for businesses, with updates to menus often required due to product and supply chain changes, which has become more common due to external pressures.
“While we appreciate the public health reasoning behind calorie labelling, we have yet to see conclusive evidence that this requirement has significantly helped to achieve any public health goals.
"It is one of many areas that we would urge the Government to revisit as part of its work to reduce the red-tape burden on businesses.”