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Scoring points

How do you satisfy customer demands for healthy menu items, and keep your competition on the sidelines? Applebee’s Kurt Hankins scored big to win the dieter’s game.

Growing consumer, and industry, obsession with dieting has many menu planners counting calories in their sleep, or at least having bad dreams about keeping up with dieter’s demands for healthy fare. The night­mares get worse as more restaurants, in all segments, add healthy options to their menus, making differentiation a hard task.

But that doesn’t keep Kurt Hankins awake at night. In fact, Applebee’s SVP of menu development and innovation sleeps like a baby, because, with what he calls some “early thinking,” he and his team dreamed up a way to box out the competition and position the casual chain as a dieter’s destination.

So how did they manage to make the chain’s menu—which offers popular, but calorie-laden, fare like Golden Fried Onion Peels and Riblets—into a dieter’s dream, and do it in a way that set Applebee’s apart? They partnered with Weight Watchers.

The inspiration for the partnership came from a corporate officer’s sister who raved about the dieting program, but it was up to Hankins to make the merger work. He needed to create a selection of healthy menu items bearing the Weight Watchers’ seal of approval and its signature points rating. That, they reasoned, would draw new customers to Applebee’s from among the millions following Weight Watchers— a group that normally doesn’t dine out as frequently because of diet restrictions. And, if grocery store sales of Weight Watchers’ branded items were any indication, there’s a demand for pre-calculated meals. The Applebee’s menu section, featuring 10 different selections with the points spelled out, makes it easy for adherents to keep to their diet even while dining out. And, the new menu would also eliminate any veto vote.

“Weight Watchers’ positioning is not a fad diet, it’s a way of life,” Hankins says. “I couldn’t think of a better group to work with.”

“We know how important it is to our members to find healthy and satisfying food choices in a casual-dining setting,” said officials of the well-known weight-loss firm in announcing the partnership.

Once the partnership was penned, the challenge was to create a healthy menu that also tasted good. “The days of items that were there simply because they were healthy is gone,” Hankins says. “Our challenge was to make the food as flavorful, as abundant, as beautifully presented as any other menu item, because today’s savvy guests expect that.”

There he had some leeway because Weight Watchers is not an exclusionary diet. “We felt from a menu standpoint that we could do a lot with Weight Watchers. We could develop any kind of food we wanted as long as it met the points criteria,” Hankins explains.

When it comes to developing menus, Hankins is no rookie. He has 18 years of R&D experience under his belt. During his first three years at Applebee’s, Hankins revamped over 85% of the regular menu. When he came on board, he methodically put the microscope to each dish. But he didn’t change just for the sake of change. “Nothing goes on the menu unless it’s better than what it’s replacing,” is Hankins’ credo.

To guide him in that job, Hankins initiated a survey of some 60,000 customers. “We were committed to making changes and making them quickly,” he says.

Hankins attacked the development of the 10-item Weight Watchers menu in a similar fashion. Dishes like Mesquite Chicken Salad, Teriyaki Shrimp Skewers, and Berry Lemon Cheesecake might sound at home on many other menus. But, by serving smaller portions of proteins and keeping fat content in check with diet-friendly ingredients like reduced-fat cheeses, steamed vegetables,  and fruit, they keep weight watchers on their diet track.

Operationally, says Hankins, the special menu is not any more difficult to execute than Applebee’s regular menu. In the back of the house, he devised a system to keep items like the reduced-fat and the regular cheeses from being mixed up during prep.

As for food costs, most of the Weight Watchers items are on par or lower than the regular menu. The smaller portions of protein keep costs down. And many ingredients are cross-utilized. A Grilled Shrimp Skewer Salad, for example, crosses well with the Teriyaki Shrimp Skewers entree.

Once the menu was done last spring, Hankins’ team turned their efforts to getting guest trial. That’s where the Weight Watchers name came into play.

It’s a recognized and respected brand, Hankins says. There was also that matter of differentiation. “Because of the exclusivity clause of the agreement, the Weight Watchers name is off the table for any competitor,” he says. “Carb-restrictive is the only other diet that would interest people, but since everybody was doing it, that wasn’t a differentiator.”

The idea of a partnership obviously resonated with other casual-dining players—five months after Applebee’s announced its deal, T.G.I. Friday’s launched its Atkins-approved menu. The low-carb craze seems to be losing steam, but, says Hankins, the Weight Watchers diet plan is still going strong.

Applebee’s healthy menu now accounts for 10% of all sales. One surprise, says Hankins, is the number of non-dieters who also order off the Weight Watchers menu.

What’s in the future? He cites ethnics, like Latino, Caribbean, and Thai.“It’s a full-court press ahead with Weight Watchers,” he says.

Under His Belt: Kurt Hankins, Applebees

  • Trained at both the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone and Johnson & Wales.
  • It’s not just about the food: Hankins earned a BA in Business and Marketing from the University of Kentucky.
  • Served as director of F&B at Chi-Chi’s for 10 years, and as manager of product development at Red Lobster for 11.
  • An in-house Culinary Olympics he instituted for Red Lobster chefs generated hundreds of new recipes.
  • 2004: appointed to the board of directors of the International Corporate Chef’s Association.

Hankins is the fifth of RB’s Menu Strategist Award winners. The recipients are selected by the editors for excellence in chain menu planning in six categories. All six winners will be profiled in the magazine, after which readers will be invited to go online to vote for the candidate they feel is most deserving of the top honor, the Menu Strategist of the Year. All awards will be bestowed at the magazine’s annual Menus Conference, to be held March 13-15, in Sonoma, CA.

Applebees Menu Sampler

Sizzling Chicken Skillet ($15.99)
Strips of grilled, marinated chicken breast in a sizzling skillet with steamed peppers, squash, mushrooms, and onions. Served with pico de gallo, roasted tomato salsa, salsa ranch dressing, lettuce, and warm wheat tortillas.

Weight Watchers Tortilla Chicken Melt ($11.95)
Chipotle roasted chicken, reduced-fat mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, corn, red peppers, and red onions grilled on a whole-wheat tortilla. Topped with non-fat cilantro ranch dressing and roasted tomato salsa.

Weight Watchers Grilled Tilapia ($12.99)
Seasoned grilled fish is topped with mango salsa and served over a bed of rice pilaf with steamed vegetables.

Weight Watchers Berry Lemon Cheesecake ($6.49)
A scoop of lemon cheesecake served with strawberry slices and a crushed raspberry sauce.

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