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How to create a menu signature

red robin poutine fries

From the Big Mac to the Bloomin’ Onion, there are some signature dishes that define the restaurants where they are served. And when restaurant operators have a hit on their hands, it naturally follows that they try to make more hits. One strategy is to start from scratch and another is to build variations on the first hit.

Consumer demand for the next, the newest and the best puts added pressure on restaurants, according to Scott Hume, founder and editor of BurgerBusiness.com, but there are only so many things operators can create. Increasing “the build” of current menu best-sellers is a way to avoid reinventing the wheel while still putting new spins on the menu. Adding a new sauce, stuffing a signature burger with an on-trend cheese or adding a name-brand beer to the batter for fish and chips are a few ways operators can extend the reach of popular dishes.

Building on the build

Robert Byrne, manager of market insights at Technomic, Inc., points to Chili’s Dr. Pepper ribs as a great example of how to extend a popular dish. “This promotion brought new energy to the ribs,” he says. “There’s a curiosity factor and an old-timey, home-cooking touch, which is appealing right now.”

Original flavors diners can’t get anywhere else are often the hallmark of a signature dish. That’s because consumers seek restaurants that provide unique flavors. This is especially true for younger consumers: 53 percent of the influential 18 to 34 year-old age group go to restaurants for original, authentic flavors, according to Technomic.

When looking at new ways to frame existing menu items, it’s important to look at best-in-class dishes to know which ones can take on new ingredients or variations. And to succeed with new items, Byrne says that changes need to be integrated into the whole operation, from aligning with an authentic concept identity to marketing to server training.

Taking limited-time chances

LTOs are a way to take more chances when changing the classics, but operators should tread carefully with these types of items. “Don't go too wild or too indulgent or too safe,” says Byrne. To walk this tightrope, first, know your audience. “Burger fans aren’t looking for health food, and pub concepts do well with adult beverage themed promotions,” he says.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Inc., a place known for bottomless fries, is proving that fries are also the source of endless menu ideation. A recent limited-time appetizer, Voodoo Fries, features the brand’s signature steak fries tossed in blackened seasoning, smothered in queso, topped with bacon and fried jalapenos and drizzled with ghost chili sauce. These on-trend loaded fries follow up last fall’s Great Northern Poutine LTO with brown gravy, garlic aioli, sauteed mushrooms and fried cheese curds.

Fries have also achieved local fame at Nosh in Portland, Maine. The original fries are dusted with sea salt and pepper, but other dust options include salt and vinegar, Nosh bacon dust and cinnamon roll dust. All fries come with choice of ketchup and a choice of horseradish mayo, ranch dressing, romesco sauce, chipotle mayo, jalapeno-cilantro mayo, blue-cheese dressing, Thousand Island or Sriracha mayo for added craveability.

Crossover hits

Another powerful way operators can create new, exciting options is to use signature items across the menu. For instance, Olive Garden recently used its signature breadsticks to create new sandwich options. Similarly, Maggiano's Signature Flatbreads use the brand’s pasta toppings on a new on-trend platform.

Red Robin even discovered that signature drinks can crossover to new menu parts. The brand’s beloved Freckled Lemonade is also available in a strawberry lemon cake. It’s a sweet way to end a meal and a sweet way to reframe a hit to grab more attention.

This post is sponsored by Brew City®

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