Health-conscious consumers have created a large fan base around blogger Ali Maffucci. She started blogging in 2013 to share her weight loss story and recipes she made using long strands of vegetables in place of carbs. Cookbooks and products came next; now she gets 2 million page views a month and has 138,000 Instagram followers. Those numbers caught Houlihan’s attention, sparking a collaboration for an LTO. “Ali’s followers are the guests we want to attract with lighter, female-friendly fare,”says Nick Janner, Houlihan’s test kitchen manager.
1. Veggie soft sell
Janner’s goal was to woo guests with healthier, veggie-forward items without pushing them as diet food, he says. He studied Maffucci’s blog and together, they came up with three ideas: subbing vegetables in lasagna, a Thai noodle dish and a meatless topping for flatbread. The shareability of flatbreads, in particular, has been a selling point for women at the chain, says Janner.
2. Tweaking the toppings
To top the flatbreads, Janner and Maffucci chose sweet potatoes and zucchini for color and texture contrast. Sour cream-based sauces are used in some of Houlihan’s other flatbreads, but to stay with the healthy theme, the pair tried Greek yogurt. “We were thinking of a veggie puree, but a yogurt-roasted garlic sauce was the best swap,” says Janner. It also required less labor than a puree.
3. Getting equipped
Houlihan’s biggest challenge was supplying all 76 locations with a spiral vegetable slicer that was within their budget and could withstand the workout of a commercial kitchen, Janner says. “Some go for thousands of dollars, and others are designed for home cooks,” he says. The team tested five or six models before they found one that suited their needs, he says.
4. Seeing is learning
Using the equipment took a bit of BOH training. Janner made a trip to Houlihan’s largest franchisee for two days of hands-on lessons and created a demo video for kitchen staff in other locations. FOH training also was necessary, says Janner, to teach servers to put a positive spin on the uniqueness of the items—not to sell them as low-carb, low-fat dishes.
When the flatbread launched in February, it was the third best-selling item on the menu, beating out a new burger. With several cookbooks and dozens of YouTube videos and Pinterest boards dedicated to the spiral slicing technique, guests are well aware of the trend and relate to it, says Janner. Now that the equipment is in every unit, he is developing more items, including the June rollout of a “pasta” dish with zucchini noodles and bell pepper sauce.