In bid for sales, operators balance the funky with the familiar

Now that menu developers have had time to mull over 2018 trends forecasts, how many of the predictions are actually going to make it to the plate? While a chef may get pumped about playing with moringa, activated charcoal and spirulina—all mentioned as trending this year—these ingredients most likely won’t show up on many chain menus. Most mainstream operators have to play it a little safer, weighing innovation against risk and appealing to palates of all ages. 

“It’s really a delicate balancing act,” says Jeff Van Hanswyk, director of culinary and menu innovation for Qdoba Mexican Eats. “We’re always looking to push flavor boundaries … and while we try to stay ahead of trends, we also want to make sure we don’t go too far, to the point where our products are no longer approachable by our customers.” With the trend toward simplifying and reducing the size of chain menus, there’s also the threat of losing regulars if you take a favorite off to introduce a trendier dish. Van Hanswyk and other chain operators share their challenges and the strategies they employed for striking the right balance of flavor innovation.

Challenge: Too funky turns guests away

Panda Express chicken dish

As the home of “American” Chinese food, Panda Express finds it challenging to introduce less common flavors and ingredients to both its guests and associates, says Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation. “We set out to create dishes that reflect Chinese origins while also appealing to the American palate,” Wang says. Throughout its testing process, the chain discovers ways to make dishes more approachable. Its newest LTO, the 8 Treasure Chicken Breast, for example, was inspired by a visit to Chengdu, China, where Sichuan peppercorn is widely used. “We knew the profile might confuse our customers with certain tingling sensations, so we decided to rebuild the taste by using three different peppers to replicate—and tone down—the bold flavors without using the peppercorn.” 

Other chains turn to safer vehicles to introduce bolder flavors. At fast casual Piada Italian Street Food, for example, the approach is a relatively obvious route: to “give guests a flavor profile that’s bold, wrapped around things they understand, especially when the flavor is just coming on the adoption cycle,” says Matt Harding, director of culinary for the brand. “We can take enormous risks with sandwiches, because consumers see them as all-American.” Recently, Harding introduced a porchetta sandwich with pickled onions and fennel. Servers were given talking points to explain unfamiliar ingredients, describing fennel’s flavor as similar to black licorice, imparting a sweet flavor. “Most Americans like sweetness in food,” he says, and that won them over.   

While chains no longer shy away from heat, they often introduce a new spicy flavor in an LTO to gauge response. At Gordon Biersch, the more “cutting-edge” of the concepts in the CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries group, “people are more willing to be experimental,” says Fred Genth, corporate chef for the company’s three largest brands. Nevertheless, when he developed a limited-time popper cheese dip with roasted jalapenos and beer, he decided to serve it with cornbread to “mellow the heat” a bit, he says.

Challenge: Choosing the right name and look

piada bowl

Several operators say boosting awareness of a new offering is a key challenge, so strategic marketing of innovative dishes is crucial. When Piada first launched its Mediterranean Power Bowl, it was drizzled with a traditional red harissa sauce. “The bowl looked like it was bleeding,” says Harding, so he adapted the harissa recipe with green ingredients to achieve the same flavor profile in a more pleasing color. While appearance has long influenced the appeal of a dish, social media has increased its importance, Harding says. Enticing photos on Instagram and Facebook are powerful tools to get customers to try new flavors. “After we sell flavors internally to the team, we take to social media to tout them,” he says.

Giving an edgy flavor a familiar name is more likely to encourage trial, says David Groll, corporate executive chef for Pollo Tropical. Groll developed a spicy Szechuan sauce that goes on grilled shrimp, but the chain calls the item “citrus grilled shrimp” so as not to make it too intimidating, he says. Groll also tends to introduce bolder flavors through shareables and “bites” that go for $4.99 to $5.99. “The lower price makes these a low-risk way to get guests more adventurous with flavor,” he says. 

Challenge: Finding a low-risk spot to sneak in new flavors

mad greens spicy shrimp

Along with shareables, several operators rely on condiments as low-risk platforms for flavor experimentation. Pollo Tropical’s sauce bar offers options from mild to fiery, with most built on fruit flavors in keeping with the tropical island theme. “But we have the opportunity to take people where they haven’t been before,” with different ingredients such as guava, Groll says. Panda Express also introduces less common ingredients first as condiments or add-ons to dishes. “It’s a good way to build familiarity both in terms of flavor and cooking technique,” says Wang. 

Salad chain Mad Greens has 20 made-from-scratch dressings on its menu, ranging from spicy Sriracha almond vinaigrette to miso-sesame and blue cheese. Although salads are paired with dressings on the menu, customers are encouraged to mix and match—allowing them to experiment with unfamiliar flavors—with trained team members offering their own recommendations, along with spoons for sampling, says Lucas Clarke, the brand’s VP of marketing. 

Challenge: Staff needs to sell it

mad greens making dressing

Many operators spend time training servers and other front-of-house employees, as well as the R&D team. Mad Greens has a “dressing mixologist” at each location to help guests figure out which flavors suit their tastes. “These team members go through an extensive 20-hour training period, learning how to understand dressing flavor profiles,” says Clarke. 

But the flavor knowledge doesn’t have to be that intense for all employees. Once an item is ready to launch at Piada, Harding travels to each location to train the unit chefs, who, in turn, train the line. Well-informed recommendations at point of purchase can convince customers to try an on-trend flavor, Harding has found. “Everything starts with teaching and mentoring,” he says. 

Challenge: Consistency across the brand

qdoba shrimp tacos

Standardized recipes are the first step toward achieving consistent flavor chainwide, but most operators agree it’s not enough. Hiring a willing workforce and training their taste buds are both crucial. Qdoba’s Van Hanswyk works with operations and training teams to create manuals, video demos and hands-on training for the chain. “Additionally, we have a call center so our restaurant teams can reach out with any questions,” he says. 

Getting consistency down across all locations is Mad Greens’ No. 1 challenge, says Clarke. The chain has units in three states with diverse environments, which plays havoc with flavor. “Recipes made by spec turn out differently in the humidity of Texas, the dryness of Arizona and the high altitude in Colorado,” he says. The recipes are the smallest part of staff training, he adds. Guided tastings are conducted with employees who prep the food, teaching them about ingredients and seasoning. They taste on the line, learning to spot more pungent shallots or fresher tarragon, for instance, and adjust flavor levels. “It may be their first [foodservice] job, but they get culinary training,” says Clarke. 

Challenge: Securing a seasonal supply

mad greens salad

“The big problem is seasonality,” says Genth. “Jalapenos may be blistering hot during one part of the year and much milder another time.” At Gordon Biersch, the chefs know how to adjust the recipes, but Old Chicago (another CraftWorks concept) is staffed with less skilled kitchen managers who can’t season to taste, he says. Pollo Tropical solves that problem by developing kits for dressings, marinades and seasonings and distributing them to all 150 locations. “The kitchens just have to add water, rice, chicken, etc.,” says Groll. 

Challenge: Ingredient costs versus potential sellability


Adding a new flavor to the menu often means adding a new SKU to inventory—and unique ingredients may be hard to source from the usual suppliers. Genth ran into this problem when he wanted to use sumac in a recipe and discovered his broadliner couldn’t get it. A specialty supplier came through, but it charged a lot and required a
minimum number of cases, says Genth, so he ditched the idea. 

Mad Greens encountered a similar roadblock trying to source prickly pear syrup for a new dressing; supply was very limited, says Clarke. Because the vinaigrette was destined for an LTO, the chain just shortened its run. But many of the chain’s salads rely on local ingredients that are available only in a small seasonal window, and weather conditions can hamper production. Last spring, Colorado peaches for the popular Alferd Packer Salad weren’t ready to be picked when the local goat feta cheese was ready. “We had to balance the two ingredients by running a five-week LTO, when usually it’s eight to 10 weeks,” says Clarke. The shortened time frame is still worth it for the brand; the salad had become one of the best sellers each spring.


More from our partners