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Coming attractions

16 August 2005

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 www.foodservice411.com

By Virginia Gerst, Special to R&I

In competitive markets, staying on top means not standing still. Top 400 Chains constantly rework their menu offerings, keeping customer favorites intact while adding new dishes to satisfy shifting tastes and emerging trends. Changes for the coming months range from bolder flavors on salad bars to more creativity on the plate.

"No substitutions, please" may soon be a thing of the past as chains work toward greater menu flexibility. At T.G.I. Friday's, guests can tailor meals to their own tastes by altering flavor profiles, portion size and even cooking methods. "Customization will be a very big piece of the pie going forward," predicts Philip Costner, vice president of research and development for the Carrollton, Texas-based chain.

Since May, the concept's Steakhouse Selects menu has offered patrons four cuts of steak and three butter sauces to go with them. Costner says he "can't think of a piece of the menu that is not suited to customization."

High-end restaurants have long offered diners such choices, but at casual chains, guests have had to pay for them, if they have been available at all. T.G.I. Friday's plans no price hikes. "You want flavored butter on a steak? We won't charge you another buck," says Costner. "The trend will be to make it easier for the guest to enjoy the meal. You don't up-charge for making it perfect."

Going With Go-Togethers Woburn, Mass.-based Ninety Nine Restaurant and Pub also has hopped aboard the customization bandwagon. It will allow guests to design their main courses when combo dinners roll out this fall; options include barbecued grilled shrimp skewers, turkey tips, grilled sirloin, honey-barbecued ribs and honey-barbecued chicken breast. Guests pair two of them and also select sides.

Old Chicago customers get a crack at customization when the Louisville, Colo.-based chain launches individual thick-crust pizzas in October. "Throughout our 29-year history, we've sold big, deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas," says Mike Thom, director of culinary research and development. "We're trying to appease guests who like their own pizza rather than sharing with the table."

The chain introduced individual thin-crust sized pizzas in 2004 but has since learned that customers prefer the signature deep-dish. "The perception is that they are getting a bigger pizza for the money," says Thom.

Perception plays a part in new menu developments at Ninety Nine Restaurant and Pub. "Steak on the plate just doesn't cut it anymore," says George Tagarelis, director of research and development. "Creativity in plate presentation continues to be a big focus. Our customers hold casual-dining restaurants to a higher level than in the past."

To satisfy calls for lighter fare, the chain will add more entrée salads. Seafood selections also will expand beyond the familiar salmon, scrod and scallops to such selections as tilapia and grouper. "Guests are more sophisticated now," says Tagarelis. "They are willing to try unusual species. We see a big opportunity there."

Diners not only are willing to try new flavors at Einstein Bros. Bagels, they insist upon them. "We target foodies who want to be dazzled," says Chad Thompson, senior director of menu development for the 417-unit, Golden, Colo.-based chain.

For fall, that translates into dishes including spinach-and-bacon breakfast panini and, at lunchtime, Harvest Cobb Salad dressed with orange-pomegranate vinaigrette. "Pomegranate juice is taking off because of its antioxidants and good flavor," explains Thompson. "We are trying to take advantage of that."

The chain is testing streusel-like pumpkin coffee cake, with pumpkin seeds and toffee, for its annual fall pumpkin promotion, an event that will bring back pumpkin bagels and pumpkin-and-cream-cheese muffins, both big sellers from 2004. "Our customers don't come to us for normal bagel-and-cream-cheese fare," says Thompson. "They want fresh flavors, and they want us to keep up with the times."

Energizing Menus and Guests

The new drinks include Match Blend, made with soy milk, peaches, mangoes, green tea and ice, and an energy blend with acai, a Brazilian fruit, and red and purple grape juices. "Acai is getting a lot of press as a superfood," says Nakakura. "We are making it even more nutritious by adding grape juice."

Customers at Panda Express, based in Rosemead, Calif., want timely fare, according to Sonya Wong, co-chair of the chain's product-development team. Sweet and Scrumptious Shrimp, being test-marketed in select West Coast locations, was designed to appeal to "the more-sophisticated consumer looking for international ethnic flavors," she says. The dish consists of batter-fried shrimp and vegetables glazed in sweet chile sauce. The shrimp are twice as large as the 50- to 60-a-pound crustaceans currently in the chain's stir-fries. "It will create a whole new level of expectation," adds Wong. "It's appealing to the eye, people are wowed by the size of the shrimp, and they really like the sweet heat."

The chain's Bold Flavor promotion, highlighting kung pao dishes and scheduled for October, also will reach out to more-sophisticated consumers. Set for inclusion is kung pao chicken upgraded with cashews in place of the standard peanuts.

At CiCi's Pizza Buffet, the same value proposition remains in place-it offers an all-you-can-eat menu of pizza, salads and pasta-but customers will find more spice. Southwestern-style pizzas spiked with chipotle, with refried beans standing in for tomato sauce, will join the lineup. "Eight or nine years ago, that spice level would not have been tolerated in some areas," says Tom Koenigsberg, chief marketing officer for the Coppell, Texas-based chain. "Today people are interested in heat and spice."

The chain's units in the Southwest and South are adding jalapeÁ±os to salad bars. In the Midwest, milder banana peppers remain the pepper of choice.

Old Chicago also intends to put more punch into its fare when it rolls out new menus in October, according to Thom. Half of the new items are fueled with more fire than in the past. "We're looking for more flavors and spice on a lot of things, but not on everything," he says. "We are still big and strong in the Midwest, and the Midwest is not the first to jump on the spice bandwagon."

Virginia Gerst is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Kids From 1 to 99

Children play in the plans of Ninety Nine Restaurant and Pub.

This summer, the family-dining chain launches a children's menu that goes beyond the limited choices typically available to the 3- to 10-year-old set.

"Traditionally in the industry, we have offered macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and chicken fingers-all served with french fries-because that is what we assumed kids liked," says Ninety Nine's George Tagarelis, director of research and development. "But their behavior is changing at home. Kids are eating healthier food, and they are eating different styles of food. When they are out, they want to experiment."

Ninety Nine's revised children's menu offers reduced portions of selected items from the regular menu along with some of the kid-pleasers from the past. Young diners will be able to pick a side dish from eight options including vegetables, salads and, yes, french fries. Prices average $4.99 to $5.99.

A focus group of parents and their offspring indicated a taste for the expanded menu.

"One parent wrote, 'There will be life after chicken fingers in Ninety Nine Restaurants,'" Tagarelis reports. "The responses supported this 100%."

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