Atkins is everywhere these days. The eponymous diet that Dr. Robert Atkins stumped for pretty much non-stop from the moment his first book on the subject was published (Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, 1972) until his death last year at 72 has been fodder for talk shows, provided the springboard for slick marketing campaigns worth millions, and basically reshaped the food world in the image of a high-protein/low-carb gospel of which Dr. Bobby has always been the primary saint.
T.G.I. Friday's now boasts an "Atkins-approved menu." Village Inn restaurants have a low-carb, high-protein menu. McDonald's is getting in on the game, as are Burger King, Wendy's and Chipotle. Local 7-Elevens are hanging "Join the Low Carb Revolution" banners. Caldonia's on Parker Road is pushing Atkins on its billboard with the catchphrase "You can't beat our meat." Johnny's Diner, one of my Sunday-morning breakfast spots, has the Atkins moniker plastered boldly across its windows. Brother's BBQ is advertising its barbecue as the original low-carb meal. Both Max Burgerworks and Burgers-n-Sports are offering burgers in the nude -- no bun. And even a paint store on Leetsdale is having a little fun with the craze by advertising "low-carb paint" on its big, light-up billboard. I'm sure that gives all the paint-chip eaters in town no end of comfort.
Last month, Denver hosted the nation's first business conference designed to examine the "opportunities and risks in the booming low-carb manufacturing and retailing industry." Made me want to head right over with a tractor-trailer full of pasta, Ding-Dongs and baked potatoes and see what kind of trouble I could stir up. But you know what? Trailer-rental companies won't give an eighteen-wheeler to just anyone. And to fill one to the axle stops with a nice spaghetti bolognese topped with Twinkies would require 20,000 pounds of pasta (cooked weight), 25,000 pounds of sauce, and roughly 8,000 twelve-count boxes of Twinkies. The bean counters who handle my expenses here at Bite Me HQ are generous, but not that generous.
So instead, I got on the phone and had a little chat with Laurie Kuntz, the CEO of LowCarbiz -- a new, Denver-based company that publishes the LowCarbiz newsletter, an industry insider's publication on all things carb-free, and is responsible for bringing the Low Carb Summit to town.
I caught Kuntz in the basement of the Adam's Mark Hotel, on the move between lunch (provided by La Tortilla Factory, New West Foods and Junior's Cheesecakes) and the first of the afternoon panel discussions ("Low Carb for the Non-Dieter"). My first question: Why Denver?
"Just because we're here, I guess," Kuntz replied. "This is where our business is, so we decided to try it out in Denver first."
The response was beyond anything LowCarbiz could have imagined. "Honestly, we didn't expect fifty people," she said, explaining that since her business is so new (the newsletter began publication in July 2003), any guess at how many people might be interested in two solid days of marketing, networking and low-carb snacks would be a total shot in the dark. In the end, Kuntz got about ten times the fifty registrants she'd expected, and nearly a hundred business owners and diet experts spoke on more than a dozen panels. "We booked one entire hotel, then had to move on and book a second venue because we ran out of space," she told me.
So LowCarbiz has already scheduled a second event in Washington, D.C., for May. And while the purpose of this first confab was "more like a business-to-business education program," the D.C. meeting will deal primarily with policy and regulatory issues and best business practices in an industry that generated anywhere from $3 billion to $10 billion last year, according to estimates.
Kuntz put the figure at a nice, even $6 billion. "And that should more than double next year," she added. Why?
"Because it's not just a low-carb diet, it's a low-carb lifestyle," she replied. "Fifty million people in the United States are obese, and they all want to do something to change that."
If the success of this first low-carb convocation is any indication, those looking for that low-carb lifestyle will have plenty of products, programs and personalities to choose from. "This isn't a trend or a fad," Kuntz advised. "We have everything here that's for eating and drinking. And for snacking. Everything that people need. And next year, there will be more markets and more restaurants joining us. Right now, it looks like it's only going to keep growing."
That's the kind of talk I'm more accustomed to hearing from late-night AM radio preachers and extremist politicians than foodies, but food is becoming the new battleground for so many things that define us as people.