A restaurant chain’s test kitchen has often been as much a status symbol as a well-equipped research lab. Far from the crowds, it’s a place to show off for focus groups and visitors to the corporate office.
But increasingly, operators are turning to real-life units and their own customers for help in evaluating the innovations they’re considering—not only new menu items but also technology, equipment, even the layout of the service line and dining room. By testing tech and equipment under actual conditions, they hope to learn more about how both staff and customers might react to the changes.
Noncorporate test kitchen
Moe’s Southwest Grill, for instance, boasts a test kitchen in the Atlanta corporate office of its parent Focus Brands. But the chain also tests ideas in one of its restaurants. The two methods work in tandem, says Scott Shotter, Moe’s VP of operations.
The company-owned “Moe’s of the Future” in Roswell, Ga., opened just over a year ago, “allows us to go after ideas we have in mind for the future without going through franchisees,” Shotter says. And, he adds, “We get results from consumer feedback that complement what we hear from the experts.”
While not the most advanced technique for garnering feedback, signage at the concept store invites patrons to share their thoughts with the staff in person on everything from a new salsa to a community table and a new digital menu board—something that’s now going systemwide. In 2017, Moe’s of the Future will pioneer in-store ordering kiosks. There’s also experimentation with equipment and systems beyond customers’ view: drying racks for pots and pans, ice machines and a lockable modular manager’s desk.
In-unit testing is a time saver, Shotter says: “Having this store allows us to do some blue-sky thinking to drive the business without having to put an idea on the R&D and marketing calendar, which is usually already filled.”
Taking feedback a step further is Freshii’s innovation unit in Chicago. Instead of asking diners for their thoughts on corporate-created ideas, the unit, helmed by franchisee Alex Blair, invites customers to submit ideas for innovation in eight categories: disposal, efficiency, lighting, menu, payment, refrigeration, seating and team.
“We’ve had some suggestions that are a huge departure from our idea train, which is fantastic because it gives us an entirely new perspective on hyperfocused details of our business,” Blair told Restaurant Business when the concept first launched. Once an idea is chosen, it will be tested from a month to a year, and from there may move on to a larger test at several stores or be rolled out systemwide.
Not about size
Mina Test Kitchen in San Francisco, an outpost of Michael Mina’s fine-dining empire, offers a seasonal rotation of pop-ups, showcasing the group’s own talent or in partnership with outside chefs. But it is testing more than just a potential dish or equipment (though equipment experimentation is always part of the deal with these specialized concepts). The goal: collaborate with diners on ideas before launching restaurants.
“When people think of a big, beautiful laboratory kitchen, that’s not what we have,” says corporate chef Adam Sobel. “It’s probably the smallest, most challenging kitchen we have within the Mina Group.” But, he says, it’s the most fluid. “We flip the script on short notice, and the team is trained to go with the flow.”