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2005 Menu Census: Options Trading

14 December 2005

What goes on the New American Menu is the result of research, intuition, innovation…and seeing what everybody else has.

This article first appeared in the 1 September 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com

By Scott Hume, Executive Managing Editor, Jamie Popp, Senior Editor, and Erin J. Shea, Associate Editor

Consumers expect an experience when they come to our restaurants, and that experience centers around food, flavors they don't get at home," says Brian Kolodziej, vice president for culinary innovations and operations at Plano, Texas-based Metromedia Restaurant Group.

Enhancing that customer experience was the goal this spring when Metromedia revamped the menu for its 310-unit Bennigan's Grill & Tavern casual-dining chain, replacing 20 dishes across all categories with more-contemporary options, ranging from a Sesame Chicken Tenders appetizer to a Cajun Shrimp Skewer entrée and Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert. "This was the biggest undertaking at Bennigan's in several years," Kolodziej says.

The menu, more than anything else, embodies a foodservice operation's brand. Its creativity, variety and pricing combine to form a proposition on which preparation and service must deliver.

Restaurants & Institutions' 2005 Menu Census Trends Survey finds that keeping menus relevant and fresh is a continuous process and that many factors are considered in the creation of new menu items. This report also breaks down menus into 10 categories to determine what is being served and what trends are developing.

Not surprisingly, taste is the most important menu-development consideration for both commercial and noncommercial operators, according to the research. But business concerns must balance creativity; a chef's palate cannot be the sole determinant.

"I hope we'll develop some signature items," says Christopher Blobaum, chef and co-owner of Wilshire restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., as he worked on the menu in advance of its planned Aug. 31 opening. "I have my ideas what those items should be. I hope guests will say, ‘These short ribs are amazing, you can't take them off,' but I'm not the one dining."

Customer preferences and requests, the desire for signature items, consistent supply, food cost, ease of preparation, menu price, compatibility with overall operation, nutrition and other considerations all go into the mix when a menu is being created or refreshed.

The weight given each factor varies: Commercial operators, for example, put higher emphasis on an item's uniqueness; non-commercial chefs are more likely to consider nutritional makeup and operational factors such as food and labor costs.

On Tour

"I eat at other restaurants a lot," says Stephanie Sokolove, chef-owner of Stephanie's on Newbury in Boston. "I look at their pricing, but primarily I don't want to menu what others serve. I want our menu to represent who we are, which is sophisticated American comfort foods with big flavors and fresh tastes.

"We did shepherd's pie on the winter menu, but with puréed acorn squash in a roasted half squash," she says. "It's still shepherd's pie but it's different than what customers get anywhere else."

The Cheesecake Factory's Chairman and CEO David Overton and Senior Vice President Howard Gordon this year visited 31 restaurants in New York City and London over nine days. Ray's Boathouse, a high-volume seafood restaurant in Seattle, regularly sends Executive Chef Charles Ramseyer and staffers to other cities to spot trends and taste new flavors.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based foodservice contractor Bon Appétit Management Co. does not centrally develop menus, encouraging chefs at each client location to create dishes that meet local preferences and product availability. But it does conduct regional training sessions on ethnic and regional cuisines for its chefs.

"The first thing we do is host a dinner at a restaurant that we've identified as having fairly authentic flavors so employees have a true understanding of the cuisine," says Marc Zammit, director of culinary support and development. "The next day, we begin hands-on training, but we encourage staff to continue going out to taste new and authentic flavors."

Involving the Constituents

For multi-unit, national chains, the process often is more structured but it still begins with assessing customers' needs.

San Diego-based Jack in the Box last year opened its 70,000-square-foot Innovation Center to help facilitate development of new products, such as its recently introduced Ciabatta Burger line. A new product's journey from idea to rollout can take a year or more, in part because of the scale of the undertaking. Decisions are not made in test kitchens alone.

"The key players are together in the center, from the consumer-insights group to research and development, marketing, operations, quality assurance and purchasing," says Michelle Vespa, director of menu marketing and innovation.

"First and foremost, we're trying to identify a consumer need, develop products against that need and gauge if we have a good idea," she says. "We look at flavors that are on trend and what some broad consumer needs are. We'll work internally or with outside culinary experts on new products that fill those needs and still be believable with customers in a QSR framework."

Focus groups help identify potential winners and their feedback may lead to refinements in taste profiles. "At that point, we may do field tests to make sure the sales are there and that a product can work operationally without interrupting other processes," she says. "That's when we start heavy talks with our vendors and look at potential supply challenges. We work with them early to identify and remove possible barriers."

Minding the 4 Ps

Having watched customer counts and sales decline for several years at its 140 truck-stop restaurants (under the Country Pride and other brands), Westlake, Ohio-based TravelCenters of America (TA) last year began re-evaluation of the menu shared by those restaurants.

"For a long time our company thought of our customers as truck drivers who, through various fuel arrangements, use us three or four times a week," says Paul Huckleberry, who joined TA last year as vice president of restaurant marketing. "I suggested that we approach them as restaurant customers who just happen to be truck drivers. Their demand for high-quality food is no different than any consumer's. Our duty is to offer those same flavor trends that every other restaurant is pursuing."

Looking to raise overall quality and expand variety through creation of regional options, TA enlisted menu suggestions from everyone from the CEO and restaurant managers to servers and vendors. The effort resulted in more than 250 recommendations.

That number was culled to 50 using what Huckleberry calls the "4 Ps" process: Proposition (How appealing to customers are the dish description and the price?), Product (Is the quality high?), Process (Can it be consistently executed by kitchen staff?) and Profit (Can it be priced to yield an acceptable margin?).

A fifth P-Proprietary-was a secondary factor. "We needed five to eight dishes throughout the day that we could create some buzz and branding around," he explains.

Three different menus were tested at six TA locations around the country before final selections were made. The new menu, introduced in July, includes such signature items as Mountain City Skillet (omelet with hash browns; roasted mushrooms, onion and peppers; sliced sirloin steak; and Cheddar cheese sauce) and Southwest Grilled Turkey Po-Boy sandwich.

Menu development isn't rocket science, though Metromedia's Kolodziej calls the process Bennigan's went through "strategic engineering."

"From a culinary perspective, our challenge was to keep a 30-year-old brand relevant. At one point we were a leader in casual dining and it's time for us to get back to that," he says. That required not just bringing Bennigan's menu up to date but moving it forward. "We didn't want to chase what consumers say they want but rather look beyond what they're getting now to what the next food trends might be."

At the same time, Bennigan's needed to be aware of its brand and niche. "Our job is to know the boundaries of what our customers look for, what we can execute and what we want our menu to look like, and to stay diligent about not exceeding that," he says.

Focus groups told the chain when it did go beyond those boundaries. "Some menu concepts were a little far out there," says Clay Dover, Metromedia vice president of marketing. "And people said, I'm not going to Bennigan's for prime rib. That's just not going to happen."

But new options that combine variety and value have been well received, he says. The new menu's Mix & Match feature, which allows guests to create their own appetizer or entrée combinations, immediately became a top seller at dinner. "Consumers want to have control of their meals. We think we're a little ahead of the trend curve with that," he says.

Be Known for Something

Brian Kolodziej, vice president for culinary innovations and operations, Metromedia Restaurant Group, Plano, Texas:

"Our research shows that consumers don't have a lot of clarity about the casual-dining segment, that you could remove the names from our competitors' menus and the offerings would be about the same.

"We all do similar items: burgers, fajitas, sandwiches and salads. The only things that separate us are the flavors we apply to those products. 'Bold flavors' are the only two words we focus on.

"We have to get our customers' confidence back and get them back through our doors."

Trust Customers

Paul Huckleberry, vice president of restaurant marketing, TravelCenters of America, Westlake, Ohio:

"We tried as much as possible to take our opinions out of the [menu-development] process. As we exposed customers to the items we created, their choices drove the final menu.

"One item we developed was the Highway Tandem Hoagie sandwich (shown), a sub with corned beef and roast beef. Everybody at the home office who tried it said, 'I just don't get this; this isn't going to go anywhere.' So far it's our best-selling sandwich."

How Often Do You Change Your Menu?

- CommercialNon-commercial
Daily4%19%
Weekly6%10%
Monthly8%18%
Quarterly/Seasonally35%24%
Once/twice a year32%22%
Less than once a year14%7%

How Important Are These Features in Menu-Development Decisions?
Operators were asked to rate the importance in menu-planning of a variety of factors on a scale of 1 (not at all important) to 5 (very important)

- Non-commercialCommercial
Taste4.724.68
Consistent product supply4.324.35
Food cost4.204.42
Popularity of item4.174.38
Consumer request4.024.14
Compatible with equipment4.023.82
Desire for unique/signature item3.872.96
Menu price3.803.96
Fits theme/menu3.793.44
Ease of preparation3.633.76
Seasonality3.583.67
Added labor3.273.53
Nutritional value3.234.12
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