For many restaurants, particularly casual-dining places, lunch is a challenge. According to the research company Technomic, most consumers eat lunch away from home only a few days per week, on average—and quick-service places tend to grab a big share of that business.
Concerns about convenience and price are dampening factors, but there are clear signs that the consumer is fickle on those matters. Fast-casual concepts boast neither lightning speed nor rock-bottom prices, yet concepts like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread Co. have emerged as midday powerhouses.
They are part of what pundits read as a clear shift in consumer demand toward higher-quality midday meals. In a report on lunch-time traffic, Technomic noted that healthy choices and smaller portions are also factoring into more purchasing decisions.
It’s all about offering a lunch of distinction, the experts agree.
Focus on flavor
Whether you're switching up sandwiches, soups, burgers, or other lunch options, a key differentiator is likely to be flavor, says Trip Kadey, director of culinary at The French's Food Company.
"For many operators, lunch is a battleground right now," he says. "You're seeing a domination by fast-casual restaurants, and to compete, you have to retool and be innovative."
Kadey points out that many quick-service restaurants are striving to provide more customization—more choices, combinable in more ways—as a means of standing out at lunch. For example, many quick-service places are copying Subway and Chipotle in turning their service system into an assembly line, where customers decide what custom touches they’d like. They might choose from six different breads or three types of tortillas; five deli-style meats; and a range of sandwich toppings, as well as dressings.
Full-service restaurants will have difficulty replicating that strategy in a way that meets lunch customers’ demand for convenience, so Kadey offers this advice: Don't bother.
"You are going to set yourself apart not by competing directly with these places, but by offering thoughtful, distinctive flavors and choices that they can't," he says. "People will spend $7 to $12 for your sandwich because of the taste, not the convenience. So, make that taste really stand out."
Use an innovative approach
To create more enticing lunch options, Kadey advises restaurants of all types to focus on signature items that boost flavor and have great marketing potential, such as locally grown lettuce or sustainably raised local pork.
Also, instead of piling plates high with oversized sandwiches and sides—which is likely to drive up food costs—focus on smaller dishes that are packed with flavor, Kadey says. That might mean a few slices of artisan bread along with rich, local, and artisanal cheeses, or a dab of butter with fresh herbs and honey. "Flavor is a value driver," he notes. "Always be thinking about simple, easy ways to increase the amount of flavors in your dishes, and be on the lookout everywhere for inspiration."
Kadey draws his own ideas from culinary publications like Food & Wine, Cooking Light, and Saveur, as well as Food Network shows. He believes that operators can benefit from blending together ready-to-use ingredients along with from-scratch items.
For example, mix Cattlemen’s® Chipotle BBQ Sauce, coconut milk, and apricot preserves to create an outstanding dipping sauce for chicken fingers—a family favorite for any meal. "You want to think about how to do ‘speed scratch’," Kadey adds. "Listen to what the folks at The French's Food Company, Kikkoman, or Tyson have to say, and keep thinking about flavors that go well together."
For more ideas, check out The Flavor InspiratorSM, a handy online tool that offers unique recipes for breakfast, lunch, and pizza dishes. If lunch is a battleground, the InspiratorSM may be your new secret weapon.
This post is sponsored by The French's Food Company