Menu Innovation vs. Design Limitations
Staying fresh and new — that's the challenge chains face on an ongoing basis. It seems like every week or month, at least, chains like McDonald's, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A and the like roll out new foods and flavors. Menu innovation plays an important part in the ongoing quest for relevancy, but how do you roll out new items without damaging flow? How do you build in flexibility with efficient kitchen design and equipment selection to accommodate new developments?
"It's almost like a symphony, where you have different parts of the orchestra playing in perfect harmony," says Jay Johns, vice president of strategy implementation for DineEquity's IHOP and Applebee's restaurants. "The chef or culinary director has to develop great new menu items, but they need to be cross-functional with all the different departments in the company, from operations to marketing, to ensure everything is in balance."
Juan Martinez, principal of Profitality, a Miami-based hospitality design consultancy, agrees with this strategy. "I once heard an executive from Outback say, 'If you don't innovate your menu, your brand will die, but if you innovate your menu wrong, you can kill your brand.' " Dramatics aside, menu innovation is vitally important to maintaining a competitive advantage, one that requires a well-thought-out, heavily tested and planned approach — one that won't damage a core brand, says Martinez. "I call it 'efficient menu innovation,'" he says.
Efficient menu innovation begins with heavy consumer surveying of core menu items as well as special promotions incorporating seasonal foods, regional-focused dishes and limited time offers (LTOs). The frequency of new rollouts differs from brand to brand; IHOP and Applebee's change their core menus every few years, introducing multiple seasonal items and LTOs throughout the year, according to Johns. In fact, "change is status quo for our stores — our operators expect it, so we need a military-like operation to make sure we're communicating and training our people," he says.
Quaker Steak & Lube offers three LTO programs annually, usually featuring three to five new items for a testing process lasting three to four months. "Our LTO schedule is a vehicle to test items prior to putting them on our menu," says Kate Malanik, senior director of food and beverage. While marketing and new product introductions drive menu innovation, lackluster sales for certain items can also spur the need for change.
At Zaxby's, systems development manager Matt Anderson says each quarter brings with it a new promotional item. "We maintain a regular testing process, so we always have a few LTOs in our pocket in case sales are stagnant for certain items," he says. "Low performers are always on the chopping block."
Testing before rollout is critical when it comes to menu innovation. For most quick-serve brands and high-volume chains, speed of service and quality represent the two most important factors.
"When it comes to menu innovation, what's important to most chains is that new items fit into their production cycle," Martinez says. With burgers, for example, introducing a new variation can be as easy as swapping out one sauce for another or one cheese for another. "From an employee standpoint it's easier because you still have the same burger production cycle."
Larger changes require much more testing. "You have to predict how much of the new product you might sell and then see how long it takes to produce those items at high volumes," Martinez says. With many quick-serves switching to more of a cooked-to-order process, this type of testing becomes even more important. "There is a direct relationship between assembly time and customer service."
Johns, an operator by trade, says he's constantly looking for feedback from the stores in terms of how the new items are impacting not only sales, but also operation and flow. "Speed of service and quality are critical," he says. "We want to be able to replicate the same quality from the test kitchen in the field where volume and speed come into play. This is why we don't have soufflés on our menu, for example."