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The challenge of the menu planner

Innovation is written into the job description of any menu planner—from the fast-casual R&D wiz to the four-star fine-dining chef. But coming up with new menu items that will excite customers and ring up sales is a constant challenge.  And the pace quickens all the time. Chain restaurants alone rolled out 825 menu introductions in the first half of 2004, according to Foodbeat, a market information company. And with today's economy brighter and customer expectations ever higher, 2005 may see even more growth.

Despite this quest for newness, some operators do well by changing little. At Jax Café in Minneapolis, you won't find a tiny tapa or plate of towering food. Nor can you order any Asian-Latin fusion or low-carb dishes. But the restaurant does at least 300 covers on weekends, so who needs to pay attention to hot food trends?

Not Bill Kozlak, Jr., the third generation to run this Twin Cities landmark in the same building his grandfather bought over 70 years ago. He's found a novel way of coming up with cutting-edge menu items—he lifts classics from early Jax menus and gives them a bit of 21st century polish.

That's not to say the 34-year-old Kozlak wouldn't mind injecting his menu with a few shots of innovation now and then. It's just that his customers like things the way they are. And he listens to his customers. (Like when he wanted to remove Liver & Onions and Chicken Kiev from the menu, and they wouldn't stand for it.)

"If you follow the latest trends, the critics will certainly come and write up your restaurant. That may get people coming for a year or so, but then you have to change the concept again when the next trend comes along," Kozlak says. "I want to keep my customers happy—they're the ones who keep me in business, not the critics. When my customers start complaining or stop coming, I'll think about changing the menu."

Many of those customers are third and fourth generation, and they crave the same dining experience their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Others are new neighbors; urban pioneers renovating old buildings in the area into chic new residences. Jax's menu is like its surrounding neighborhood—old is chic again.

In 1933, Jax was the second eatery in Minneapolis to get a liquor license after the repeal of Prohibition, and the crowds quickly filled the place, ordering up gin martinis and stingers (25¢ and 30¢ respectively), to sip with shrimp cocktail (25¢) and beef tenderloin (50¢.) Now customers can have it all over again. The Beef Tenderloin dinner, priced today at $25.95, is still the most popular menu choice. Roast Prime Rib of Beef, served with au jus and creamy horseradish sauce, and broiled Fresh Walleye Pike take second and third place. The pike was a latecomer, added to the menu in 1954.

"We're strong believers in serving what our customer wants, and we're a meat and potatoes town. We can't lose sight of that," says Kozlak, adding that is the reason Jax often goes backward in time for ideas and inspiration.

There have been a few missteps when Jax lost sight of its core customer. Like back in the '90s, when heart-healthy cooking was all the rage and low-fat dishes were incorporated into the menu. Or when one chef got "a little too creative," according to Kozlak.

The present chef, Bob Foster, is content to stick to the basics—he gets his chance to be more inventive with specials and promotional events. To spread his wings, he might dress up the beef tenderloin with a garlic crust or mushroom leek ragout, or offer an appetizer special such as beef carpaccio or hickory-smoked bacon-wrapped shrimp with Asian slaw.

For a recent event, commemorating the restaurant's 70th anniversary, Jax offered a four-course beef tenderloin dinner for two, complete with wine, for $70. In addition, one lucky table per night was chosen to order from a specially-designed historical menu, with food and drink prices from 1933, 1939, and 1954. The event not only built traffic—it reinforced the brand.

"It's now hip to be retro," Kozlak says. "New restaurateurs are trying to take the Jax idea and open similar places." So even if crispy eel with yuzu coulis makes it big on 2005 menus, there will be plenty of customers coming to Jax who appreciate the honesty and comfort of classic dishes, prepared with care and prime ingredients.

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