Way Out Front on Trans Fats
TIBURON, CALIF.-When the New York City Board of Health voted last week to ban trans fat from the city's eateries, some restaurants predicted dark days ahead. The chemically modified vegetable oil substitute, used to produce everything from pastries to french fries, is linked to heart disease-but it tends to hold up longer than other oils, and it's cheap. Last year, the 18 restaurants in Tiburon, Calif., decided to make this small town across the bay from San Francisco the first "trans-fat-free city" in the country. Brian Wilson, co-owner of local favorite Sam's Anchor Cafe, who kicked the habit five years ago, spoke with U.S. News about what the restaurant business and dining out look like from the future.
Some industry leaders are saying cooking without trans fats is impossible.
Not at all. It can be harder to do a really good fry product. You're really limited as to what oils you can use, because they have to have a high enough burning point that they don't burn before the food is done. We switched to a rice-bran oil made by the California Rice Oil Co. and tried it, and it works fantastic. It's a neutral oil, which means that all you're tasting is what you put in it-the oil doesn't add any flavor to the mix.
Why did you decide you wanted to get rid of trans fats?
We actually just switched because we liked the product. Because it's a higher-quality oil, it doesn't break down quite so quickly as many oils do, which makes up for the fact that it can cost a little bit more. It used to cost us about $25 to $30 more each time we changed our three fry basins-which we do about 50 or 60 times a year. But right now, it's competitively priced.
So customers didn't push for the change?
Five, six years ago, people didn't even know what trans fats were. They didn't realize that that muffin or those french fries had stuff in them that was bad for you. You might know french fries aren't the best thing in the world for you, but you didn't know they were something that had long-term effects. As a restaurant, you have a responsibility to not hide anything. What trans fats are is hidden.
And dropping them hasn't forced you to raise your prices?
Not at all, not at all. And don't worry, I don't have any stock in the California Rice Oil Co.!
You offer a lot of seafood, onion rings, french fries, burgers-have you ever had any comments from diners who miss their trans fats?
I'd be happy to spot you some french fries and see you what you think. I think we have great french fries. When we've switched our fish and chips from one fish to another in the past, I've had customers go, "What's the deal? This is different." When I switched the oil, nobody said anything.
What other options are there besides rice oil?
Vegetable oils, grape-seed oil, avocado oil-but they either get really pricey or they start imparting flavors. You can't use something like olive oil because its burn point is too low. Although it's great for sautéing and stuff, you need to have that kind of heat to fry properly so it sears on the outside and it's cooked all the way through.
How did it happen that so many restaurants in Tiburon agreed to this?
Everybody just jumped on the bandwagon. Stephen Joseph, a local attorney who filed lawsuits against McDonald's and Kraft over using trans fats-he was the one that went out and got it rolling. The rice-oil people brought in some samples. Some of the local restaurant people asked us how we liked it before they tried it. But there was never a meeting where all the restaurants got together and said, "Let's do this." If so, it'd be the first time that many restaurant people had agreed on anything. It's not a law. It's just a policy.
Why do you think restaurant owners in other cities are dragging their heels?
I think it's just human nature; people are afraid of change. I know when we went through the no-smoking stuff, there were a lot of people in the restaurant business who said it was going to be the end of bars. And it just simply didn't happen. People adjust. It'll be normal in five years, like it is now with smoking.
Some people argue that going off trans fats is more complicated than just changing your oil.
Yeah, you have to go further than the first layer. Some products like frozen french fries are already partially cooked when they're frozen. That first processor, you've got to make sure they're not using trans fats, too; otherwise, you're lying to the customers. It's not a big deal, though-it's just something else you have to do. It's certainly easier than making sure all the seafood you serve is fresh.
Looking back, are you satisfied with the change?
Yeah, as business entrepreneurs, there is a responsibility to tell people what you're serving them if you're going to do something that isn't healthy. Restaurants have to be able to stay up with trends in healthier eating. It is more expensive, but to stay competitive in the restaurant business, you have to do that. Price gets people in, but quality gets them to come back.
This story appears in the December 18, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.