The restaurant industry made great strides this year in bouncing back from the recession—in fact, 86 percent of diners reported eating at a restaurant in the last 30 days, according to a new report from Chicago research firm Technomic in partnership with TKTK-based data analyst, Acosta. But the competition among operators for share of stomach remains fierce, especially with players such as grocery and convenience stores expanding their foodservice offerings.
Indeed, every customer counts, and it’s now more important than ever for restaurants to offer unique, craveable menu items that both attract new guests and keep current ones coming back. One way operators can do this is by menuing daily specials and limited time offers.
LTOs have long been used by savvy restaurateurs to boost sales. The limited availability of these items generates excitement and social media buzz to attract new customers. LTOs also give operators a chance to test new menu items without the full commitment or expense of rolling them out as a regular menu item.
Additionally, LTOs can score high points with consumers, especially when they feature protein—something that health-conscious diners are looking for, according to the NPD Group. Although high commodity costs could discourage restaurants from adding more meat to menus, many are incorporating protein into dishes anyway in order to meet increasing consumer demand. For example, Dunkin’ Donuts recently added both a sandwich and a wrap featuring Angus steak, both previously menued as LTOs, onto its permanent menu.
Although some consumers are motivated by health, many also seek indulgence and craveability. In fact, 83 percent of consumers say that cravings are the main driver of away-from-home food purchases, according to Technomic. Operators can balance consumers’ desire for healthy choices with their desire for taste by using bold, flavorful sauces and gravies to create innovative, protein-focused LTOs.
Here are a few best practices for operators who want to create traffic-driving specials.
Get creative with center-of-plate
Consumers’ palates are ever-expanding, so operators shouldn’t be afraid of menuing alternative proteins such as lamb, bison or even goat. Delivering head-turning proteins can be a point of differentiation, especially when availability is limited. Brick House Tavern + Tap, for example, added a goat burger to its specialty menu this fall (it’s available every Thursday)
Adding out-of-the-box sauces or gravies to these proteins, as well as traditional proteins, can give LTOs an edge. Many of the so-called “mother sauces” can become vehicles for flavor with the addition of just a few unexpected ingredients, such as Thai sweet chili sauce, curry or even brandy. Casual-dining chain Olive Garden upgraded a basic marinara sauce by adding bacon and a touch of heat in its special Southern Tour of Italy menu this year.
Focus on the seasons
It’s no secret that the holidays provide one of the best excuses for operators to menu LTOs; seasonal flavors such as pumpkin spice, cranberry and peppermint are most often found during the fall and winter holidays, when they pack the biggest revenue punch for operators.
Seasonal specials, though, can also come into play during other times of the year. Operators can menu beef or pork with indulgent sauces, such as hollandaise or creamy mushroom sauce, during the winter months and take advantage of seasonal produce during the spring and summer with dishes that feature lighter proteins such as poultry or shrimp with bright, herb-infused sauces and glazes.
Offer a choice
Call it the Chipotle effect: Customization is a trend that will only gain momentum over the next few years. Consumers crave build-your-own options, and offering guests their choice of sauce or gravy is one of the easiest ways operators can menu customizable LTOs.
For example, Wendy’s menued pork for the first time this fall with its BBQ Pulled Pork French Fries, a poutine-inspired LTO that allowed customers to choose one of three barbecue sauces. Similarly, casual-dining chain Buffalo Wild Wings offers guests the opportunity to customize their wing orders with over 20 different sauces and seasonings.
Partnering for success
Having the right products in your kitchen is essential in creating distinctive LTOs and protein-forward offerings. For a fresh angle and taste profile, check out the Daily Specials Guide from Unilever Food Solutions. And visit the Unilever Food Solutions website to explore all the resources and information specifically focused on chain operators.
This post is sponsored by Unilever Food Solutions