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Atkins Fattens Restaurants' Bottom Line

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CHICAGO - It is not a fad, it is a new order. And more and more, restaurateurs are seeing its effects every day: people dining under the influence of the low-carbohydrate, high-protein Atkins diet.

"They send the breadbaskets back," noted Hugo Ralli, managing partner for the Gibson's restaurants in Chicago and suburban Rosemont, Ill. "On the weekend, they order bacon burgers and say, `Hold the bun.'"

Not that Ralli is complaining about business at the steakhouse.

"We serve huge slabs of red meat and lots of burgers as well," he said. "In June, we had the biggest month we've ever had. That's extraordinary in this day and age."

At Harry Caray's, managing partner and president Grant DePorter says it also is shaping up as a "Holy cow!" kind of year for his three Chicago locations, emphasis on the "cow."

"There has been a shift," he said. "The top seven things we sell here are our steaks, and we're having a record year."

At Caray's, bread is fading, and so is pasta.

"The pasta category is definitely becoming not as dominant as it might have been 10 years ago," DePorter said.

Why the sea change? It could be because the Atkins approach, while it has been building in popularity for years, now has the weight of some recent scientific studies behind it to justify claims that a low-carb diet can be just as effective as a low-fat diet in losing the pounds.

"Some of these studies were done by physicians to discourage their patients from using the program," said Colette Heimowitz, director of education and research for Atkins Health and Medical Information Services. "With all of the assumptions that they made prior to the research-about it being so dangerous and causing heart disease-just the opposite happened (in the studies)."

While the studies showed the diet reduced risk factors for heart disease, the jury is still out on the long-term effectiveness of the Atkins plan. Nonetheless Heimowitz is heartened that restaurants are changing as diners say no to high-carb foods.

"They're simply responding to consumer demand. It's wonderful, because people will be eating better and healthier outside the home," she said. "It's becoming much easier and more convenient to follow Atkins as part of a long-term lifestyle."

That the Atkins diet is becoming a lifestyle and not simply a lose-weight-fast gimmick is evident on the West Coast, where a steady stream of low-carb stores are opening for business, including a chain called Castus Low Carb Superstores.

The Atkins approach also is eating into the profits of other businesses. Niall Fitzgerald, co-chairman of Britain-based Unilever, recently complained to reporters that the low-carb diet was a key reason that U.S. sales are slipping for his company's Slim-Fast weight-loss shakes.

The U.S. Wheat Council and the British Potato Council also launched advertising campaigns trying to discredit Atkins. Heimowitz insists that her company isn't trying to eradicate carbs from Western diets altogether.

"If people understand our lifetime maintenance phase, rice and whole grains are incorporated back into the lifestyle, but in moderation," she said. "We're not saying that those things are bad; we're saying that they need to be respected and consumed in a manner that doesn't allow the body to store those carbohydrates as fat."

General manager Dan Rosenthal has seen Atkins affect business at Chicago's Trattoria No. 10. Instead of giving breadbaskets to every table, the restaurant now has a busman come around to each group to hand-serve slices of bread if they're wanted. The practice saves money, because bread (believe it or not) is a fairly expensive item on an eatery's books.

But Rosenthal says the Atkins revolution is part of a larger trend: nutrition-savvy consumers.

"Ten years ago, people would never be saying, `Can you do chicken skinless?' People are so cognizant of nutritional analysis," he said. "I got three e-mails today asking for the nutritional analysis of everything on our menu."

But even in a health-conscious, Atkins-aware society, people still like to splurge.

"People will just have a salad and an appetizer," he said. "Then, for dessert, they'll order chocolate cake and ask us to give them extra hot fudge sauce."


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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