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Let Them Eat …

25 October 2006

Chain diners want it all: flavor, quality, a great price and more. Top 400 corporate chefs prove up to the task.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2006 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 here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

They know new menu items and limited-time offers win new customers and reward loyal patrons, and also fuel traffic, frequency and check-average increases that bulk up bottom lines.

"Corporate test kitchens are trying to find the next big home-run item," says Brian Kolodziej, vice president of culinary innovations and operations at Plano, Texas-based Bennigan's Grill & Tavern. "If one of us is able to land on that next trend, capitalize and make it a point of difference, it can mean huge growth of market share."

A checklist of themes-some familiar, others emerging-guides the efforts. Big flavor delivered via high-impact carriers such as ancho and chipotle chiles, roasted garlic and pesto sauce remain at the fore. Fresh ingredients-defined in the multi-unit arena as never-frozen proteins and produce that takes less time to get from farm to plate-are becoming not just desired but expected by consumers.

"It used to be if you wanted really good-tasting food, you went to white-tablecloth restaurants. Now people are looking for opportunities to enjoy quality food without paying for the top levels of ambience or service," says Owen Shapiro, vice president of the Leo J. Shapiro Food Research Institute, a Chicago-based consultancy.

Corporate chefs are introducing more "gourmet" ingredients in familiar favorites, Shapiro says; caramelized onions on pizza, goat cheese in salads and upgraded bread for sandwiches are among examples he cites.

Recent menu introductions bear out this theory, from USDA Choice grilled steak now available in tacos, salads and burritos at Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Taco John's to mango chutney that perked up the recent Mango Island Chicken Sandwich promotion at Burlington, Vt.-based Bruegger's.

Chicken's popularity continues. Tampa, Fla.-based Outback Steakhouse recently debuted Bronzed Chicken with Corn Cakes as part of a bid to draw more business from women and younger diners. Premium chicken sandwiches remain red-hot; even burger-centered concepts such as Columbus, Ohio-based White Castle are buying into the bird with a limited-time Honey Chipotle Chicken Sandwich.

All-natural chicken products, typically containing no antibiotics, additives or preservatives, are winning favor, with converts including St. Louis-based Panera Bread, Atlanta-based Arby's and Lexington, Ky.-based Fazoli's.

Gaining broad appreciation among guests are menu additions at both ends of the healthful versus indulgent spectrum. Milford, Conn.-based Subway's California Fit Fresh Value Meals (sandwiches with 6 grams of fat or less plus diet soda, water or 1% milk, and apples, raisins or baked potato chips) made a splash the same month that Nashville, Tenn.-based Shoney's lured customers with Grizzly Burgers, two third-pound beef patties on a double-decker bun.

The trickle-down influence from fine-dining restaurants has inspired several up-and-coming chain trends, including chains' foray into seasonal, natural, organic and artisan.

Also gaining momentum are independent-driven ideas not yet widely adopted at the multi-unit level. Small plates, still strong at independent concepts, are budding on a handful of chain menus in the form of mini burgers and chicken sandwiches such as Louisville, Ky.-based KFC's Snacker. Regional ethnic fare-driven by the continued strength of ethnic accents in chain lineups-likely will play a role in upcoming development as well, with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro testing the waters with a "Flavors of Sichuan" menu.

No matter what needs menu entries are designed to meet, all require prudence and solid understanding of diners.

"With people traveling more and increased coverage of food in the media, chefs are seeing customers with rising expectations and increased awareness of the gourmet dimension of food," Shapiro says. That doesn't mean they'll try anything. "At the same time, people don't want to leave their comfort zones," he adds.

As a springboard for stirring up creative culinary ideas, here are eight menu must-haves recently introduced as regular additions and limited-time offers.

Bundled Three-Course Meals

  • The idea: At casual restaurants, bundled meals of appetizer, entrée and dessert at a set price are designed to boost check averages, drive traffic and showcase new and signature menu items.

  • Why it works: Value and variety are the big draws. "Customers feel like they're getting a good deal, and they like being able to sample the menu," says Gretchen Paules, director of marketing for Louisville, Colo.-based Old Chicago. Three-course meals also give guests the feeling of a dining-out experience rather than a quick fueling.

  • One great idea: In its three-course Taste of Old Chicago initiative, the chain menued three starters, six main courses and two desserts including Smokin' JalapeÁ±o Firehouse wings, Italian Sausage Stromboli and Homemade Cheesecake. Servers took advantage of upselling opportunities with beverages or by suggesting a second salad or dessert for $2 for guests sharing the meals.

  • Other on-trend examples: A $9.99 Triple Dipper Dinner at Dallas-based Chili's; the Three Course Menu for $12.99 from Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday's.

Sizzling Skewers

  • The idea: Use skewers of bamboo, sugarcane, rosemary or lemongrass stalks to dress up presentations of proteins from steak to shrimp.

  • Why it works: As starters or main courses, the fun, handheld format appeals to patrons of casual and upscale concepts alike. Easy to prep ahead and quick to cook, they can be enhanced with house-made or prepared marinades, glazes, rubs and dipping sauces, and make great vehicles for economical protein cuts.

  • One great idea: A limited-time offer of lobster and jumbo shrimp skewers scored high with guests at Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sizzler. The shelled, 1.5-oz. pieces of lobster and fresh, never-frozen shrimp are seasoned lightly with purchased blends and threaded onto bamboo skewers before service.

  • "They present well and allow us to get orders out in less than 15 minutes," says Vice President of Product Development Dudley McMahon, who also is working with a vendor to develop preseasoned wood skewers that impart flavor to products as they cook.

  • Other on-trend examples: Herb-marinated sirloin or citrus-marinated shrimp skewers from Columbus, Ohio-based Max & Erma's; steak skewers with chimichurri sauce at Miami-based Pollo Tropical.

Bold and Spicy

  • The idea: Spark recipes with subtle doses of chiles, cayenne pepper, Caribbean jerk seasoning, curry powder or other spicy additions.

  • Why it works: Heat supplies one more tool for chefs to create full-bodied, multi-dimensional tastes chain customers demand. On menus, descriptive terms such as "fiery," "zesty" and "blazing" draw attention as flavor cues.

  • One great idea: Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp.'s Premium Spicy Chicken Sandwich has been a runaway hit. Touted as the burger giant's spiciest offering ever, the sandwich features a fried chicken breast seasoned with chipotle, cayenne and other spices served on a honey-wheat roll with tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise.

  • Other on-trend examples: Mango Habanero sauce at Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar; Spicy Bone-in Chicken at Atlanta-based Church's Chicken.

Eat and Run

  • The idea: Develop cleverly packaged, hassle-free options tailored to time-pressed, on-the-go consumers looking to fuel up on the subway, bus or highway.

  • Why it works: The average American visits restaurant drive-thrus 3.5 times per month, and more than one-third eat the food they purchase in their cars, according to R&I's 2005 Drive-Thru Survey. As drive-thru sales continue to climb, the audience for travel-friendly products is growing.

  • One great idea: Venerable quick-service seafood chain Louisville, Ky.-based Long John Silver's in 2006 built two limited-time offerings around food designed for portability. Packaged in easily accessible snack boxes, both recipes pack a flavor punch even without potentially messy dipping sauces.

  • Buttered Lobster Bites were morsels of langostino (a crustacean similar to lobster) in buttery breading, while Parmesan-Crusted Fish Bites featured Alaskan white fish with Parmesan-accented coating.

  • Other on-trend examples: Crunchwrap Supreme from Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell; Chicken Fries from Miami-based Burger King.

Seasonal Sensations

  • The idea: Scores of independent restaurants are educating American palates to the joys of seasonally driven menus. Take advantage of customers' increased knowledge to showcase fresh products at their best.

  • Why it works: "Guests want to see fresh items on the table, and recipes using seasonal produce, meat and seafood at the right time of year are a great way to do that," says Antonio Iocchi, a research-and-development chef for Dallas-based Romano's Macaroni Grill.

  • One great idea: Romano's promoted its Penne From Heaven special in June, spotlighting fresh asparagus tossed with roasted chicken, buffalo mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil-garlic sauce. To ensure suppliers would be ready for high-volume demand of the seasonal produce, the company provided requirement projections months in advance, Iocchi says.

  • Other on-trend examples: Fried oysters at Heathrow, Fla.-based Ruth's Chris Steak House; Tart Cherry Scones at Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread.

Organic/Artisanal/ All-Natural

  • The idea: Take a cue from consumers' growing interest and source organic and/or local ingredients; use artisan and all-natural products as points of differentiation.

  • Why it works: Not only do customers often associate terms such as "local," "organic" and "artisan" with quality, the words also have healthy connotations for many Americans.

  • One great idea: Introducing sandwiches such as the Sonoma Smoked Turkey with Havarti cheese and apricot-ginger chutney on organic bread (with no preservatives, saturated fats or trans fats) captures diners' growing tastes for both organic foods and cutting-edge flavors, says Bart Carmichael, vice president of operations and procurement for Cary, N.C.-based fast-casual concept Bear Rock Cafe.

  • The company also bills several breads as artisan, which it defines as handcrafted-style breads with crisp exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors that offer a level of quality beyond standard sliced bread or sub rolls.

  • Other on-trend examples: Organic beans and naturally raised pork, beef and chicken used in some items at Denver-based Chipotle; organic yogurt, milk, chocolate milk and apple juice at Panera Bread; local beef and cheese at Vancouver, Wash.-based Burgerville U.S.A.

Bread: Not the Same Old Slice

  • The idea: Celebrate the ebbing of the low-carb craze with products that feed renewed appetites for bread-based fare. Ciabatta and focaccia have fully infiltrated chain menus; could pita be the next big sandwich vehicle?

  • Why it works: Even in the Atkins heyday, customers sensed they were missing out on something they love. With interest in carb counting officially over for most, bread has been fully restored to its well-earned place in the chain restaurant world. Guests want more than slices, though, and are eager to sample ethnic-inspired breads.

  • One great idea: Bennigan's BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger Pita and Peppercorn Bleu Cheeseburger Pita were so successful in a recent promotion that they earned permanent status on the casual-dining chain's latest menu. Vice President of Culinary Innovations and Operations Brian Kolodziej says the custom-created pita bread is a naan-style flatbread with a savory finish that pairs well with the burgers' seasoning. "This pita is thicker and more pliable than other flatbreads we've used, and it holds heat well and absorbs burger juices nicely," Kolodziej says. "It's safe to say this bread has multiple applications beyond the cheeseburgers."

  • Other on-trend examples: Southwest Chicken Pita from San Diego-based Jack in the Box; Market Fresh Roast Beef Gyro from Atlanta-based Arby's.

Pasta Is Back in Favor

  • The idea: Dish up easily prepared, cost-effective pasta with classic accompaniments or more-adventurous accents and ingredients.

  • Why it works: Pasta is a comfort-food favorite that easily survived the Atkins fad. For the health-conscious set, tempt them with whole-wheat options.

  • One great idea: Pasta sales more than doubled at San Diego-based Pat & Oscar's when the casual-dining chain bolstered its limited-time pasta offering with three new, penne-based choices: Tomato-Fredo Pasta (in a combination Alfredo-marinara sauce), Creamy Primavera and Classic Alfredo Pasta, which was the runaway favorite.

  • To fit under-10-minute ticket times, the pasta is cooked and portioned ahead of service. To order, it is dipped in boiling water for 45 seconds to reheat, then mixed with sauces, held hot.

  • Other on-trend examples: Straw and Hay pasta at Columbus, Ohio-based Brio Tuscan Grille; Shrimp Pasta Bowls at Nashville, Tenn.-based Captain D's Seafood.

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