The new realities of R&D

Bringing a menu item to life requires skills that go beyond cooking.
applebees steaks grill

Today’s corporate chefs need to consider new and challenging criteria during the ideation process. Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report reveals that quality ingredients, transparency and customization are top consumer priorities—all of which bear down on menu development. On the operator side, throughput, minimizing SKUs and differentiation all play key roles. Social media impacts the process, too, as items are increasingly designed to build sales by stirring up online buzz.

Keeping it clean

Consumers now equate healthy with clean eating, says Technomic, and the chains that are winning share of stomach are sourcing fresh, unprocessed ingredients. That push for transparency and traceability impacts every SKU at Freebirds World Burrito, says Director of Culinary James Sanchez.

Freebirds’ guests build meals from a selection of proteins, vegetables and sauces. “We had been buying marinated, grass-fed skirt steak from a supplier, but it wasn’t gluten-free. In February, we traded it for sirloin flap that we now prepare in our own gluten-free marinade,” says Sanchez. To make sure customers get the message, Freebirds’ staff are trained to recite all seven ingredients, if asked.

It’s Sanchez’s job to find suppliers with clean ingredient statements or come up with in-house preps—sometimes adding labor and cost. Juggling those variables is a challenge, but “since steak is our best-selling protein, it was important to make this change quickly,” he says.

Reading social cues

Today, a menu item has to play as well on social media as it does on the plate. That’s why being photogenic was a goal in developing a new carrier for BurgerFi’s burgers, says Paul Griffin, director of culinary, purchasing and R&D. Thinking “social-first,” he worked for a year to create the Instagram-worthy (and additive-free) bun that debuted this spring.

But success isn’t measured only in likes. “I will be happy when it’s out for a month and no one notices the flavor change—just that it’s cleaner tasting and more natural looking,” he says.

An item that’s popular among the social media set can inspire line extensions. When BurgerFi posted about a tomato-bacon jam that was on an LTO, “the buzz was immediate and positive,” says Griffin, who monitors social media daily along with the communications and executive teams. So he incorporated the jam into a new burger, using BurgerFi’s followers as a modern-day focus group as well as ambassadors for the new item.

Simplifying and specializing

In May, Applebee’s launched a menu platform led by R&D in partnership with franchisees and teams from marketing, consumer insights and operations. Guest research indicated that menu callouts such as “hand-cut in-house” and “wood-fired” would differentiate the casual-dining chain, motivating Applebee’s to install wood-fired grills in its 2,000 locations and add trained meat cutters. “Adding wood-fired grills allows us to touch 40% of other menu items, too,” says Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer, VP of culinary and menu strategy.

Applebee’s also decreased the number of menu items—a trend seen across Top 500 chains—but added more opportunities to customize. “We knew that getting focused on the right things and putting our time and energy against them would make a difference for us [operationally] and, in turn, for our guests,” she says. 


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