R&I's exclusive research reveals how much menu customization consumers desire, and operators share the dos and don'ts of how to deliver it.
This article first appeared in the 1 August 2008 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. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Americans are comfortable with the concept of customization: Cell phones are programmed to ring with favorite songs; espresso is blended to order with dizzying choices of dairy products, sweeteners and flavored syrups; and golf clubs are built to match a player's height, hand size and swing speed.
This made-for-me mentality is especially prominent in foodservice, where the simple choice of whether to get cheese on a burger has given way to selecting from among five breads and seven dressings at quick-service sandwich shops, specifying what kind of meat and salsa will go into a burrito at fast-casual Mexican spots and choosing from a variety of specialty sauces and toppings to garnish filet mignon at upscale steakhouses.
"We have what we call mass customization, where we try to have a similar platform that reaches as many consumers as possible but still provides some element of customization where the consumer can feel like, ‘Yes, that fits me,'" says Susan Jung Grant, an assistant professor of marketing who teaches buyer behavior at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business in Boulder. "There is a sense that among this breadth of choices I'm going to be able to find my ideal point, so on the consumer end, we feel like there's more value."
Indeed, 51% of operators say diners are more interested in create-your-own and mix-and-match menu options than they were a year ago, according to May 2008 R&I data. Additionally, R&I's 2008 New American Diner Study finds that more than 40% of consumers say they like menus that let them create combinations of several appetizers or main dishes. In terms of quality, being able to have a dish made the "way they like it" was deemed by diners to be the leading factor in determining quality in a research study conducted by R&I a decade ago; clearly that mentality still applies.
Yet simply bombarding guests with endless options is no silver bullet for success. To truly capitalize on customization's growing allure, operators first must understand where it fits best (and where it doesn't) and how to present choices in meaningful, guest-friendly ways.
What's In It for Operators
Encouraging customers to be more active in shaping their buying-or dining-experiences creates a valuable dialogue between consumers and companies, says Grant at the University of Colorado.
"This notion of co-creation, that we're both vested in this experience, is something marketers have really embraced, and it's potentially very powerful," she says.
Finding common threads among the choices customers make also offers operators a layer of insight into what kinds of products a concept's target audience seeks-helping companies create new products inspired by what Grant calls "customer-led innovation."
Operators are doing their best to keep pace with customer demand for create-your-own options, coming up with creative ideas beyond choosing toppings for burgers and sandwiches or the "pick-two"-style lunches popularized by bakery-cafe concepts such as Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread Co. and Dallas-based Corner Bakery.
Flat Top Grill, a 12-unit make-your-own-stir-fry concept based in Oak Park, Ill., introduced an as-you-like-it approach at breakfast.
On weekends, guests customize omelets, scrambled eggs, French toast and pancakes with a bounty of components, including cheeses, fresh fruit, chocolate chips and nuts.
Meanwhile, casual-dining restaurants such as Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday's let diners design multicourse dinners from selected appetizers, entrées and desserts for a fixed price.
Noncommercial venues, too, have expanded DIY dining beyond made-to-order deli and salad options. Customers at Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp.'s business-and-industry accounts can create omelets or combine a variety of sauces, vegetables and proteins for tossed-to-order pasta entrées.
At Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., the foodservice program run by Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo features made-to-order stir-fry and pasta stations as well as CrÁªpe Bistro, a local concept that offers diners the chance to select from four cheeses, six sauces and 17 fillings (ranging from shrimp to ratatouille) to build their own crÁªpe.
"It's really a competitive world now where guests know they can demand more, and they certainly do," says Cammie Spillyards, senior manager of food-and-beverage innovation for Dallas-based Chili's Grill & Bar, which recently added create-your-own fajitas to an already extensive array of customizable menu choices.
For the fajitas, guests select chicken, shrimp or steak; poblanos or bell peppers; two toppings, such as applewood-smoked bacon, portobello mushrooms or blue cheese; and any of six sauces, among them chimichurri, ancho-chile barbecue and jalapeÁ±o ranch.
"It really is about personalization and feeling special," Spillyards says. "It makes it seem a little less like a chain to think, ‘I know you're making this for me.'"
How to Make "Do-It-Yourself" Fit
Coming up with custom menu options that diners will appreciate is just the first step; effectively handling more-complex items on an operations level can be more complicated. At Chili's, guests who order create-your-own fajitas pencil in their preferences on checklists, and the lists follow orders into the kitchen in addition to being entered in the POS system.
For Flat Top Grill, the greatest challenge of a customer-driven system is managing food costs, because every guest takes different amounts of each ingredient, says CEO Keene Addington. To keep a handle on the numbers, each restaurant calculates a food-cost average based on its own history.
Meanwhile, to keep things simple on the line, each of the nine ways stir-fries can be prepared (over rice, atop noodles, in soup, etc.) is designated by colored sticks that customers place in their bowl before handing the bowl to cooks.
Industry veteran Lane Cardwell, partner at foodservice consultancy The Chain Gang in Dallas, points out that custom options such as Flat Top Grill's stir-fries or build-your-own pastas at Dallas-based Romano's Macaroni Grill pose greater risks to operators than do mix-and-match entrées, which are more about meal building than flavor assembly.
"People like the ability to put things together, but the outcome's not always what they hoped for, and they're going to blame the restaurant if it isn't good," he says.
That's why Flat Top Grill, with its roster of six proteins, 26 vegetables and 22 sauces, offers guidance on complementary flavors, displaying suggested combinations of sauces and other components on chalkboards and at tables. Servers also offer to walk customers through the line to help them make selections.
The ways in which options are presented to customers plays an important role in how well the choices-and the concept itself-are received, says Sheena Iyengar, a management professor who examines choice-making behaviors at Columbia Business School in New York City. She suggests grouping items into manageable categories of no more than 10 items each to keep customers from being overwhelmed by possibilities.
What Works, What Doesn't
Do-it-yourself dining isn't just for casual concepts, either. Wolfgang Puck's CUT restaurants in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Las Vegas are among the top-shelf steakhouses that encourage diners to customize entrées with a broad array of sauces, toppings and sides.
Lee Hefter, executive chef and managing partner of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, says that although most of CUT's add-on options go well together, servers act as "guide rails" to help ensure that guests enjoy their selections. Menuing sides and sauces as extras instead of building their costs into an entrée offers guests more control over what they spend, Hefter adds.
Still, customization may not be a fit for every concept. Patrons at fine-dining restaurants, Cardwell points out, often choose such restaurants precisely for the expertise their kitchens offer in marrying flavors and ingredients.
As famed chef Thomas Keller told The New York Times regarding Ad Hoc, his Yountville, Calif., restaurant that offers one predetermined four-course menu each night: "For most people, the definition of luxury is multiple choices. But if I don't have to make a choice, if I'm taken care of and everything's great, to me, that's luxury."
The "Me" Generation?
Professor Chris Muller, director of the University of Central Florida's Center of Multi-Unit Restaurant Management in Orlando, credits what he calls "pluralism of demand" in part for consumer interest in products made "my way."
"Look at the soft-drink aisle and how many more choices there are for colas and waters; look at how many flavors we can buy of everything now," he says. "The same thing you're seeing in consumer products is easily applied to the restaurant business."
The Internet's continued rise, allowing more consumers more ways to research and interact with sellers to track down deals and products tailored to them, is driving the shift as well, says Sheena Iyengar, professor of management at Columbia Business School in New York City.
"There is more of a ‘me' culture today," she says. "You can create any possibility."
In foodservice, create-your-own and mix-and-match menu items hold extra appeal for specific demographic groups, R&I's 2008 New American Diner Study shows. Females are more interested than males; blacks more than whites, Hispanics or Asians; and Gen X, Gen Y and boomers more than matures.
It makes sense that younger consumers are demanding more of a say, Muller says. "This Millennial generation has been trained to have control over their environment," he says. "You'll see the industry having to deal with a lot more complexity."