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A Few Good Menu Ideas

25 October 2006
A Few Good Menu Ideas

New dishes that score with guests lift Top 400 chain sales.

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 Kristina Buchthal, Senior Editor

Chain menus evolve or risk falling behind the competition. New items spark consumer awareness and interest, but success isn't guaranteed: The most on-trend flavor can fail in focus groups or test markets.

But a new item that clicks with guests can spike incremental sales and customer traffic, providing the surge that helps a concept move up the ranking of the R&I Top 400 chains.

"We are taking something we are famous for and applying a sauce to it that's an on-trend flavor profile," says Paul Schramkowski, vice president of product development for the Nashville, Tenn.-based casual-dining chain. "Now we have another extension of that brand."

Though he declined to provide sales specifics, Schramkowski says that Chipotle Chicken O'Tenders not only were a high-volume item, but customer counts and sales of other items increased while they were on the menu. And the item continued to sell well even after promotional table tents were removed.

Cajun-spiced Louisiana Sirloin, another kicked-up menu addition last year, also proved popular with O'Charley's guests.

Beefing Up Beef 'O'Brady's Family Sports Pub also made a calculated move to bolster its brand with a new menu item. The chain introduced a new hamburger in September 2004 aimed at playing up the chain's name. Sales soon increased 25% for the new burger, which weighs 8 ounces versus the previous 6 ounces and uses higher-grade meat.

"Our original signature item is chicken wings," says Nick Vojnovic, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Beef 'O'Brady's. "Two years ago, I never would have told guests to try our burgers.

"A restaurant reviewer for an Ohio paper wrote that the new hamburger was the best he had ever tasted, so sales in the local store took off," Vojnovic says. "We had to get special deliveries to reload because the location sold so many burgers."

In September 2005, the company introduced four new "signature" burgers with bolder flavor profiles: spice-dipped 'O'Brady Burger; barbecue bacon cheeseburger; chili cheeseburger; and Black and Bleu (cheese) burger.

"The signature piece is something you have to build up," Vojnovic says. "You can't rely on one or two items; the burger Beef 'O'Brady's sold 10 to 15 years ago, we could not serve today. People seek more intense flavors. Today, we use more kinds of cheese and vinegars. Their palates are more demanding."

They Called It Macaroni (Pizza!) Some chains have found that the most unexpected items become hits. When CiCi's Pizza was testing a new pasta product as a side dish for its buffets, it decided to try how well macaroni and cheese would take to a pizza crust.

The result? Macaroni and Cheese Pizza. CiCi's stocks the item daily on its lunch and dinner buffets. "It turned out to be a unique, craveable product that guests love. It's very popular with kids under ten, tweens and men," says Sara Hundley, senior marking manager for Coppell, Texas-based CiCi's.

Though it is hard to track sales on CiCi's buffet, Hundley says Macaroni and Cheese Pizza is one of the most selected items.

"It fits so well with our demographic, which is families with kids under 12," Hundley says. "It flies off the buffet."

Reubenesque Model Arby's success with its Reuben sandwich was no accident. The chain identified an untapped market-no national quick-service chain was selling delicatessen-style sandwiches such as pastrami and Reubens.

A one-month promotion of a hot Reuben sandwich was rolled out in May 2005. The product, aimed at drawing customers to Arby's Market Fresh Sandwich line, was the chain's first toasted deli sandwich, combining corned beef, Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing and sauerkraut.

Arby's rendition of the classic sandwich was an immediate success, increasing traffic at Arby's locations while not cannibalizing sales of other menu items, says Ed Gleich, senior vice president of concept development for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Arby's.

"With a new item, you want to attract customers who would not otherwise have visited and you want to give more choice to current customers," Gleich said. "This sandwich did both."

Originally planned only for a short run, the Reuben was such a hit that it was brought back in December 2005 and added to the chain's permanent menu in January. "We discovered it wasn't just a good promotional item," Gleich says. "It had real, sustained growth."

Par for the Core Noodles & Company has taken a different approach with its menu offerings. Even though the chain's limited-time offers-such as Braised Beef and Gnocchi, and Angel Hair With Fresh Asparagus-have driven sales increases, the chain has found that marketing efforts are most effective when they focus on the core menu.

One item, Thai Curry Soup, saw a 50% jump in sales when the Boulder, Colo.-based chain featured it on in-store advertising and educated staff about the product.

"We haven't done any limited-time offers this year," says Dwayne Chambers, vice president of marketing for Noodles & Company "We want to spend time introducing each of our items to guests, because we have found that the more people try different things on the menu, the more frequently they return to our restaurants."

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