Signature items remain important because they “evoke the essence of the brand,” says Stan Stout, COO of casual-dining concept Babalu Tapas & Tacos. While many menus spotlight signatures with larger fonts, boxed-out partitions or photos, Stout and others are using alternative methods to promote signature dishes. Click ahead for six contemporary approaches from operators who were chosen for the diversity of their concepts.
1. Keep pricy signatures as ghost items
Ten-unit Slapfish considers its lobster roll one of its signatures, but it’s not even listed on the restaurant's menu. “The $20 price tag creates optics that lead some people to believe we’re a higher priced menu,” says Andrew Gruel, the chain's founder and executive chef. Average menu prices at the California-based fast casual run from $7 to $12, he says, so putting something in the $20 price range stands out. Instead, Slapfish uses social media to its advantage, spotlighting the lobster roll on its online feeds so often that many followers enter the restaurant already knowing they will order the item. “We don’t need it on the menu for it to be a signature,” Gruel says.
2. Avoid the word 'signature'
In the next month, Slapfish plans to slowly roll out a new menu that swaps a section titled “Signatures” with “Originals.” Many of the comfort food items featured in that section can be traced back to the chain's founding in 2011 and still use the original recipe, something Gruel says the chain wanted to play up. This wording change evokes a sense of nostalgia and elicits a “visceral, memorable” reaction, per Gruel.
3. Bring favorites into people’s homes
Mississippi-based Babalu Tapas & Tacos sells more tableside guacamole than anything on the menu, says Stout. To extend sales of the signature outside the restaurant, the eight-unit chain began offering take-home guacamole meal kits once or twice a year. Sold in-restaurant, the meal kits feature all of the ingredients guests need to make guacamole in a single package, along with details about how to access an instructional video online. The kits are promoted on social media and in the restaurant, typically around the Super Bowl.
4. Train staff to pitch trademarks
Gruel encourages Slapfish staff to choose two signatures and come up with their own jargon to pitch to customers regularly. This allows them to talk about items without sounding too rehearsed, says Gruel, something that makes customers feel more comfortable. Babalu also focuses on staff training—the chain hosts regular “food shows” during which chefs serve signature dishes to front-of-house staff and explain the items' taste profiles and prep process so servers can properly relay them to customers.
5. Employ food porn
Customers standing in line at Slapfish are bombarded with food porn. Not only are posters of high-res signature photography set up near the queue, but the room is designed so staff must walk past customers in line with food that’s headed to tables. Gruel suggests that staff “do a couple loops” so customers can see and smell the food being served. Even the plates themselves are designed with this food porn aspect in mind.
6. Market beyond the restaurant
Each location of Slapfish, Babalu Tapas & Tacos and Punch Bowl Social all have designated social media pages, on which signature items are frequently spotlighted. Looking beyond social media, chefs and bar managers at nine-unit Punch Bowl Social “demo recipes on television segments, participate at local foodie events and engage with local bloggers and influencers,” says Robert Thompson, the chain's founder and CEO, to spread the word about popular items throughout its communities.
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