Chain cravings

16 August 2005
Chain cravings

This article first appeared in the 1 July 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

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Busy kitchens are scenes of choreographed chaos, every move designed with a single goal in mind: giving customers what they want.

For R&I Top 400 operators, this means delivering innovative experiences that are at once creative and satisfying, comfortable and consistent. At the chain level, though, inspiration must be tempered by demands for appropriate price points, widely accessible ingredients and recipes that are in step with kitchen staff capabilities.

  • Better-for-you foods, including salads
  • Indulgent options
  • Bigger, better burgers
  • High-impact spices, sauces and condiments
  • Asian influences
  • Grilled or toasted sandwiches

Adaptable to the diversity of concepts and cuisines that are represented in the Top 400, these criteria help keep industry-leading chains at the top of their gastronomic games.

Better for you
Menu options that target health-conscious consumers have veered away from last year's low-carb fever and now take the form of fresher, better-tasting choices and recipes free of trans fats.

As entrée salads evolve, they often include fruit, from the seasonal Bartlett Pear and Candied-Walnut Salad at San Diego-based Sweet Tomatoes to the Fruit and Walnut Salad offered by Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's.

Joe Giannetti, vice president of franchise services at 70-unit Saladworks in Conshohocken, Pa., says the chain's Fresh Fruit Frenzy salad satisfies the taste for sweets as well as demands for tasty, healthful fare. The spring menu addition matches honeydew melon, cantaloupe, pineapple and mandarin orange segments with vegetables; granola and honey-yogurt-Dijon dressing top it off.

Better-for-you options go beyond the salad bowl. Atlanta-based Blimpie introduced two veggie-patty sandwiches shaped to fit its oblong rolls. Its Santa Fe Sub features Cheddar cheese, guacamole and chipotle-chile sauce on a black-bean patty; the GardenFresh Sub includes a four-cheese blend and Italian dressing on a patty of mushrooms, onions, water chestnuts, carrots and peppers.

"The vegetable consumer is not necessarily your traditional strict vegetarian or vegan," says Jenn Townsend, Blimpie assistant vice president of menu development. "A lot of people are choosing something healthier for lunch although they may eat a steak for dinner."

On the trans-fat front, a growing number of chains, including Lexington, Ky.-based Fazoli's and Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, have eliminated the ingredient from all or selected items. Among those going trans-fat free is Beaumont, Texas-based Jason's Deli, a 137-unit, fast-casual chain that completed the change with its April menu rollout. Co-owner and founder Rusty Greer says he spent "three intense years" working with manufacturers and his R&D department to make the switch. Trans fats raise levels of "bad" cholesterol and may increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Indulgent Options
Consumers let their dollars speak to their preferences, and the resounding sales success of debuts such as Burger King's Enormous Omelet Sandwich and Hardee's Monster Thickburger leaves no doubt about the message: Indulgence is in.

At St. Louis-based Hardee's, mega-sized options aren't restricted to burgers. In February, the chain launched the Loaded Breakfast Burrito, a flour tortilla stuffed with eggs, ham, bacon, sausage and Cheddar, served with a side of salsa.

New breakfast plates at Carlsbad, Calif.-based Carrows Restaurants also are decidedly decadent: Bananas Foster Pancakes arrive laden with bananas, caramel sauce and whipped cream, served with two eggs and choice of breakfast meat; the Mile High Pancake Stack, layered with sausage patty and bacon strips, is topped with two eggs cooked to order.

"When people dine out they often are tempted by something indulgent," says Heather Gardea, vice president of food and beverage. "We're all trying to be good so often that when you're dining out, it's a bit of a treat."

Casual-dining veteran Friendly's turns to the heart of its brand-ice cream-to take indulgence a step further. In a spring promotion centered around three limited-time SuperMelts, including the Philly Steak 'n Cheddar with steak, sautéed onions, green peppers and Cheddar-cheese sauce on grilled sourdough bread, the Wilbraham, Mass.-based chain offered free Happy Ending Sundaes in flavors such as Chewy Gooey Chocolate Brownie.

Bigger, Better Burgers
As decadent dining expands beyond big, juicy beef patties, more than indulgence is driving chains' latest burger introductions. Operators are dressing up this mainstay with specialty breads, toppings and proteins that deliver the variety, bold flavors and quality Americans crave.

For International Dairy Queen, keeping customers from turning to fast-casual concepts for quality spurred the addition of its GrillBurger line. Among choices are the quarter-pound Mushroom Swiss GrillBurger, quarter-pound California GrillBurger with seasoned beef and garlic mayonnaise, and half-pound version with cheese.

Appetites for premium burgers that combine traditional elements with taste twists led San Diego-based Jack in the Box to develop two selections served on toasted ciabatta rolls. The Original includes a quarter-pound patty with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle and roasted-red-pepper sauce while Bacon 'n' Cheese doubles the patties and adds bacon, American cheese and smoky-Cheddar mayonnaise.

Attention-grabbing elements shape casual-dining burgers as well. Maryville, Tenn.-based Ruby Tuesday recently added 15 new recipes to its "30 Famous Burgers" section, expanding protein choices to include bison, turkey and veggie patties. Nontraditional beef-based options include the Surf and Turf, topped with spicy broiled shrimp and rémoulade, and the Mama Mia, with marinara sauce and Swiss cheese.

High-Impact Spices and Sauces
Some like it hot, some like it bold and increasingly, customers clamor for tastes that go beyond the ordinary.

"People want high flavor profiles, variety and a little adventure. At restaurants, they like to have what they won't cook at home," says Julie Reid, vice president of culinary at Ruby Tuesday, where these criteria apply to menu additions such as zesty Asian-glazed wings with sweet-hot ginger dipping sauce or crispy-fried Buffalo Chicken Wontons, stuffed with cheese and Buffalo-sauced chicken.

Even customers who shy away from unfamiliar foods are drawn to new tastes that add zing to favorite foods. That's the logic behind the Layers of Flavor program at Columbus, Ohio-based Damon's Grill, which invites guests to customize certain items by adding one of three sauces: barbecue, spicy sweet and sour or chipotle grilling glaze. Five new lunchtime sandwiches also boast kicked-up toppings, from chimichurri mayonnaise to cranberry spread.

At Glendale, Calif.-based IHOP, guest feedback revealed a higher-than-expected level of comfort for intense tastes.

"We've found that some flavors that might seem too edgy for family dining really work. You'll see us go more to flavors such as smoky horseradish sauces or chipotle mayos," says John Koch, vice president of product, menu and purchasing.

Asian Influences
The high percentage of Asian-tinged offerings on chain menus leaves no doubt that the cuisine remains red hot.

Of new and updated offerings at Overland Park, Kan.-based Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar, half reflect an Asian theme. Stir-fry-based bowls, grilled Oriental chicken salad and Teriyaki Steak & Shrimp Skewers join as entrées, while Thai Chicken Pizza with peanut sauce, shredded cabbage, carrots and cilantro is the newest starter.

"We felt that our first toe in the water with Thai-influenced food should be in the appetizer arena; people will take a lot more risk there than with an entrée," says Kurt Hankins, senior vice president of menu development and innovation.

Among the entrants at Plano, Texas-based Bennigan's Grill & Tavern is Crispy Almond Chicken, lightly fried and topped with almonds, Asian herbs and honey-soy-ginger sauce. Robert Turtledove, senior vice president of marketing and concept development for parent company Metromedia Restaurants, explains the company's approach to ethnic trends and other menu drivers. "We take a classic and give it a spin," a tactic that is evident in the chain's Sesame Chicken Tenders, topped with Asian herbs and sesame seeds and served with peanut dipping sauce.

Dan Admire, vice president of culinary at Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan's, says the call for bold flavors and the perception of lighter and fresher fare are delivered to guests via Asian-themed dishes. Its new Thai Chile Buffalo Wings are coated with a soy-based sauce that includes garlic, ginger, serrano chiles and honey then tossed in sesame seeds, green onions and cilantro. Seared rare tuna won tons arrive with Napa slaw in rice-wine vinaigrette with wasabi mayonnaise for dipping.

Grilled or Toasted Sandwiches By design, most chain menu additions require little or no change to equipment inventories. The exception: panini grills and toasters, brought into kitchens by operators intent on introducing hot, crispy sandwiches that elevate tastes and textures to new highs. One example: Houlihan's Grilled Vegetable Panini, made with white beans, zucchini, red peppers, tomatoes, caramelized onions, provolone cheese, basil pesto and balsamic glaze on rustic Italian bread.

At Blimpie, onion-poppy-seed ciabatta is the vehicle for panini options that include The Sicilian, made with ham, salami, black peppered-ham, provolone cheese, roasted red peppers and creamy Italian sauce, and the Turkey Italiano, with cappacola, provolone, turkey, roasted red peppers and brown mustard.

Jason's Deli, which menus a Smokey Jack and a Chicken panini pressed between olive-oil-basted French bread, recruited its new panini grills for a second application: two grilled wraps dubbed "wrapinis."

"I started pressing the wraps [for my own meals] and they were delicious. One thing led to another, R&D got hold of it and it's selling great," says co-owner and founder Rusty Greer.

Good Libations

When it comes to beverages beyond the bar, "must-have" designations have a familiar ring: options both healthful and indulgent, with full flavor and first-rate quality.

On the better-for-you side, availability and selection of noncarbonated options such as juice and milk are on the rise across segments. Beaumont, Texas-based Jason's Deli features organic juices in blueberry-banana and raspberry flavors, bottled still and sparkling waters and a line of natural sodas. At Atlanta-based Blimpie, where Assistant Vice President of Menu Development Jenn Townsend says most customers still gravitate toward soda at lunch, a low-calorie, low-carb cranberry-grapefruit juice has joined the fountain lineup.

Upgrading quality is the strategy at Glendale, Calif.-based IHOP, which will shift to fresh-squeezed, pasteurized orange juice from the current concentrate alternative, and at St. Louis-based Hardee's, where hand-dipped ice cream shakes have replaced the previous machine-made version.

Quenching thirsts for big flavors are a host of bold-tasting teas, lemonades and coffee drinks. Atlanta-based Caribou Coffee's Chocolate Covered Banana Cooler (above), a blended, whipped-cream-topped coffee drink, offers customers a drinkable indulgence, as do Atlanta-based Cinnabon's fruity Chillatta beverages in flavors such as Strawberry Banana, Tropical Blast and Caramel. The new mango lemonade at Plano, Texas-based Bennigan's helps balance out the chain's signature bar offerings.

Dining Duets
Increasing shifts toward variety and customization are driving new combination offerings that allow customers to craft their own entrées by choosing among specified options.

  • Take Two at Marie Callendar's, Aliso Viejo, Calif.: Pepper-crusted steak, half rack of ribs, shrimp skewers, teriyaki salmon, chicken tenders, fried shrimp and spinach-artichoke chicken
  • Mix & Match at Bennigan's, Plano, Texas: Top sirloin, Cajun shrimp skewer, Southwest grilled chicken breast, Cajun salmon and tempura shrimp
  • Double Features at Fatz Cafe, Taylors, S.C.: Calabash chicken with ribs, steak or popcorn shrimp; steak and ribs; steak and jumbo shrimp
  • Take Two at Applebee's, Overland Park, Kan.: House sirloin, riblets, buttermilk shrimp, honey-grilled chicken and honey-grilled salmon
  • Dinner Doubles at IHOP, Glendale, Calif.: Buttermilk-battered popcorn shrimp, top sirloin steak and grilled chicken breast

Trend Setters
Forward-thinking Top 400 chains don't rest on past accomplishments. The following companies, spanning the range of quick-service, fast-casual and casual dining, are turning to creative menu devices to set their concepts apart from competitors.

This spring, Boulder, Colo.-based Noodles & Co. took a cue from fine dining, introducing two in-season-only dishes: angel hair pasta with fresh asparagus and a chilled asparagus and romaine salad. Later this year and into 2006, the 100-plus-unit fast-casual chain will launch additional items inspired by seasonal produce.

In a move that has more than doubled sales of some appetizers, 117-unit Damon's Grill, based in Columbus, Ohio, now offers half and full portions of four starters (Onion Loaf, Chicken & Black Bean Firecrackers, Mozzarella Sticks and Bases Loaded Potato Skins).

West Coast quick-service favorite Wienerschnitzel, based in Newport Beach, Calif., downsized its signature products to capitalize on the mini-foods trend with its "Mini to the Max" promotion in May and June. Customers could purchase three-inch mini chili dogs (r.) individually, in 12 Paks or in Snak Paks with one mini chili dog and three mini corn dogs.

In a remedy to what Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan's Vice President of Culinary Dan Admire calls a "real over-usage of mashed potatoes and vegetable medleys" on chain plates, the 76-unit casual-dining chain developed jazzed-up accompaniments such as sweet chipotle slaw or savory white beans with spicy pecans and smoked bacon.

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