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John Merlino, Claim Jumper's R&D genius

If John Merlino were a gymnast, his event would be the balance beam. At 42, the corporate executive chef and R&D director for Claim Jumper walks a fine line between tradition and trend. On one side, there is the long-running success of a much-loved 30-year-old brand; on the other, fast-moving food trends and changing consumer expectations. One wobble, and the contest could be lost.

If John Merlino were a gymnast, his event would be the balance beam. At 42, the corporate executive chef and R&D director for Claim Jumper walks a fine line between tradition and trend. On one side, there is the long-running success of a much-loved 30-year-old brand; on the other, fast-moving food trends and changing consumer expectations. One wobble, and the contest could be lost.

Merlino has helped the 43-unit casual chain pull off a critical trick: Keeping many loyal customers happy and moving the concept forward for the next generation. “Being 30 years old with a very loyal following, we have some signature menu items that simply can’t change. At the same time, there’s a need for items that meet peoples’ concerns for eating healthier and eating smaller portions, as well as being less expensive. Menus need to change with the times. The challenge is to do that without alienating customers and screwing up the brand.”

There must be something to that. With sales approaching $9 million a year for some newer locations, Claim Jumper’s average unit volumes are second only to those of casual-dining juggernaut The Cheesecake Factory. In 2006, Consumer Reports ranked Claim Jumper the No. 1 chain in the crowded $15 to $19 meal segment, based on food quality, service and value.

“Johnny really understands food, how to keep it exciting and still approachable,” says Bill Story, vice president of management recruitment and training, who has known Merlino since 1983, when they both worked at Laguna Hills, the chain’s second location. “The company has always been known for menu innovation, and Craig [Nickoloff, the founder and CEO] is always pushing to keep things exciting and creative. But that’s a tough thing to do. A lot of our customers don’t want change.”

At a time when many older, segment-specific chains struggle to stay relevant (onetime barbecue specialist Damon’s Grill; the Champps Americana sports-bar; and erstwhile pizza palace Uno Chicago Grill), Claim Jumper—which started in the late 1970s touting steaks, ribs and rotisserie chicken—has stayed ahead of the curve. On Merlino’s watch, the Irvine, California-based company has introduced a number of successful new menu signatures, including the California Citrus and Candied Walnut & Asian Pear salads; Seared Ahi; Cheese Potato Cakes; Tortilla Chicken Soup; stuffed Jamaican Sweet Potato; Oaxacan Style Sea Bass; and the four-item Small Bites Desserts selection. He’s also freshened up the rest of the menu, swapping out heavy from-a-mix gravies with lighter reductions, introducing higher-end produce and ramping up quality and presentation up and down the line.

One thing he hasn’t done is mess with the chain’s top-selling debut specialties, including barbecued baby back pork ribs, Whiskey Chicken and the infamous six-layer Chocolate Motherlode Cake. “They may be a train wreck from a culinary standpoint, but from the customer’s point of view they don’t need a thing,” Merlino says. He calls it “large food.” “Customers want salads, but they’ve got to be large. Sandwiches? Large. I can introduce anything—as long as it’s very, very big.”

In all his years in foodservice, Merlino has been around the block and back. “Claim Jumper just keeps pulling me back in,” he laughs, in full Michael Corleone mode. He started working for the company as a busboy while still in high school—to support his surfing habit—and has done three different tours at Claim Jumper over 25 years. He’s also worked as a chef in upscale restaurants and in menu development for several chains. He even ran his own Italian restaurant (Merlino’s on 17th, in Costa Mesa) in the early ’90s. For a while—but only after escaping the work life to fulfill a lifelong dream to surf Indonesia—he worked for a small company that makes soups, sauces, dressings and other custom formulations for foodservice clients. There he learned the manufacturing side of the business, which plays an increasing role in chain menu development. “I’m convinced that manufactured food can be as good as house-made, if it’s done the right way,” he says. It certainly frees up unit staff to work on more a la minute cooking and better presentation, instead of repetitive, labor-intensive tasks such as making sauces.

Merlino grew up in a close-knit Italian household, cooking at the knee of his grandmother and Sicilian aunt. “Aunt Angie, she was the real deal. She had sausages and hams hanging in the basement.” But it was Craig Nickoloff who made him realize that he could make food for a living. “It was because of him that I went to culinary school,” Merlino says.

Returning to the company in 1996, Merlino created an R&D department. The 19th unit had just opened, and the menu was still simple, “steak, ribs, chicken, salad bar,” he recalls. “Any R&D was at the unit level. The cooks and chefs didn’t have time to focus on the big picture, on keeping up with trends and managing costs. Someone like me who’s focused entirely on the food can really accomplish something. We made a huge push to upgrade.”

Nickoloff’s R&D mandate was to modernize, without losing Claim Jumper’s identity. “The food had to be large, but it needed to be more wholesome. We didn’t want a lot of manipulation of the product,” Merlino recalls. “We wanted it natural, we wanted flavor.” The next five years saw a number of menu changes, from reformulating the popular onion soup to make it more authentic—baked instead of microwaved—to entirely new products like the California Citrus Salad, now a signature entree. The rollouts required not only significant development work, but training at the units.

By 2001, the go-go pace of high-volume chain life got to be too much, and Merlino left the company. “I needed to nourish a life outside my job, or I’d lose it.” The move surprised no one who knows Merlino. In an industry known for punishing work schedules, he insists on one that allows him time with his wife and three kids—surfing, mountain-biking, riding motorcycles in the desert. “I love showing them how cool it is to be alive,” he says.

He also fights to keep his own voice. In his first corporate job, in 1993, as director of menu development for a pair of family-restaurant chains, the marketing department suggested a croissant pizza topped with jelly and banana and chocolate sauces. “I make food. I wanted nothing to do with it,” he recalls. The CEO, a man notorious for firing people who couldn’t get with the program, revamped the culinary department—around Merlino.

By the time Nickoloff came calling again, in 2004, Merlino had made up his mind: regular workdays, no weekends. Nickoloff and other longtime senior management were thinking along the same lines this time. “Everyone was reevaluating what they wanted from their lives, and the company,” Merlino recalls. (That attitude included bringing in an equity partner so the chain’s continued growth could be more comfortably attained. The team was also determined to reduce unit-level turnover and allow employees to live a more rational life.)

If anything, the changes have unleashed Merlino’s creative juices even more. The past two years have seen a number of home-run menu hits. Small Bites Desserts, introduced in 2005, are a huge contrast to the chain’s signature Chocolate Motherlode Cake, a $10 extravaganza of chocolate cake with chocolate chips, walnuts and chocolate fudge frosting. The Small Bites—Green Tea & Ginger Crème Brûlée, English Toffee Pudding, Cinnamon Caramel Flan and a Red Velvet Cupcake—are priced at $2.95 to $4.95 and are designed for people who would normally turn down dessert. And dessert sales have increased significantly, Merlino says, without even touching the Motherlode’s menu share.

“They’re based on classic comfort desserts, but we put our own spin on them,” says Merlino of Small Bites. The Red Velvet Cupcake is slightly larger than a typical cupcake, so it stays moist inside, and it’s served with a molten bourbon chocolate sauce and frosting, plus shortbread cookies for added value. “Even though the Small Bites items are sophisticated, they’re still familiar. This isn’t something you don’t understand or can’t pronounce. We worried about the crème brûlée a little bit, because it has kind of an upscale connotation. But it’s also becoming more widely available.” The custard is steeped with fresh green tea and ginger (two cutting-edge flavors that are now on the public’s radar), chilled, then sprinkled with sugar and brûléed to order on the line. A garnish of whipped cream and fresh raspberries brings the dessert into a more mainstream genre.

“Food cost wise, the Small Bites line is a winner,” says Merlino. “Guest perception wise, it’s a winner. They also drive lunch sales and other non-dessert occasions because they’re relatively light.”

Unlike many chains, the marketing department doesn’t drive menu development. “Everything starts at R&D here,” says Merlino. “We develop the product and then troubleshoot with the operations guys and purchasing department, before we bring marketing in. Before you can introduce something, you have to understand...the abilities in the back of the house and in the distribution chain.”

Purchasing is crucial to R&D. “[Purchasing director] Dave Wicker and I are joined at the hip,” Merlino says. “We’re like cat and dog—I want it out of the box, he wants it in.”

Rolling anything out is one of Merlino’s favorite challenges. “We don’t want to dumb the food down, but at the same time it has to work in an environment where we can do up to $30,000 a day in sales in some of the units.”

A sophisticated item like the new Oaxacan Style Sea Bass (sautéed, then braised a la minute in a spicy tomato herb broth) must have the kinks worked out before it ever hits the public eye.

Although a commissary/test kitchen opened in 2002, Merlino does most of his bench work in the Irvine restaurant. “That gives us the real-life look,” he says. “There’s no perfect fryer oil in the store. We see the product as it’s done in the restaurants, so we delete that variable that could otherwise cause it to go south during the rollout.”

Next up: more ethnic items, seafood, salads and less filling items. “A menu like ours is never done,” says Merlino. “There’s always something new to look at, some better way of doing things. The company is very serious about growth, but at the same time it’s ‘Keep it loose and lighthearted, keep it creative.’”

There’s that thing about balance again.

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