5 secrets to leading with an impactful menu

Inflation and increased competition mean that menus have to work harder to build traffic and sales, concluded speakers at the Restaurant Leadership Conference. Here’s how to make that happen.
RLC panel
Talking about impactful menu innovation at RLC are (l. to r.), Paul Fabre of Subway, Jim Norberg with Krispy Krunchy Chicken and Cindy Syracuse of Burgerfi with Pat Cobe of Restaurant Business moderating. | Photo by W. Scott Mitchell.ant

Tech, sales and growth were major topics of discussion at this year’s Restaurant Leadership Conference (RLC), which took place in Phoenix earlier this week. But in the end, restaurants exist to feed people—and the menu is at the heart of every operation.

Crafting an impactful and profitable menu was the focus of several operator panels led by editors of Restaurant Business, sister company of RLC, with panelists from Subway, BurgerFi, Cava, City Barbeque, Pepper Lunch, Duck Donuts, Dog Haus and other chains, both large and emerging, sharing their insights. These are some of the key takeaways we gathered.

Challenge the menu. When Troy Hooper, CEO of Hot Palette America, first looked at the menu at the company’s Pepper Lunch concept, he challenged portion size, beef quality and every ingredient that went into the signature "DIY teppanyaki" meals. “About 50% of our customers are under 30, and we felt we had to upgrade a bit,” he said. He changed the beef spec to top-quality Certified Angus Beef, increased the portion size and sources two different beef cuts to enhance the flavor.

When she was new on the job, Annica Conrad, chief brand officer at fast-casual City Barbeque, questioned why there wasn’t a menu section for shareables when so many customers liked to share. She was told that shareables were “a secret menu item” to which she replied “we’re not In-N-Out and our customers don’t know about the secret menu. It really is a secret,” she told the audience. The menu has now been updated with a shareables section.

When something doesn’t work, take it off the menu. Cava limits its pantry to 38 ingredients and if the data shows that something isn’t selling, it goes, said Andy Rebhun, chief experience officer at the fast casual. Right now, Cava is testing steak, “but when we execute a new protein, it can’t complicate operations, either. We only have so much room on the grill,” he said, during the Lunch & Learn session “Make Menus Work Harder for your Bottom Line.”

Find the LTO rhythm that best fits your concept. Duck Donuts is focusing on limited-time offers as a way to boost traffic and return visits, said CEO Betsy Hamm. “You have to find the right balance,” she said, and for her brand, launching an LTO every five weeks is a win. Donut breakfast sandwiches are in the works and next up is a donut ice cream sandwich in May.

Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza introduces LTOs in sync with the seasons, said CMO Cindy Syracuse during the “Impactful Innovation” general session. When the chain brought in Mike’s Hot Honey for a sweet-heat promotion, it was cross-utilized in three items: Pizza, wings and a margarita. To determine whether an LTO will make it to the permanent menu or make a return appearance, Syracuse said it should achieve 4% of the sales mix without cannibalizing other menu items. And running an LTO with the tagline “while supplies last” takes pressure off the supply chain and builds consumer demand.

Paul Fabre, SVP Culinary & Innovation at Subway, warned attendees that when it comes to choosing a winning LTO, sometimes you have to kill your darlings. "As much as chefs love a particular item, sometimes it fails in test and you just have to let it go,” he said. And there’s no magic number as to how many LTOs you should run in a year. “It’s not how many; it’s what drives traffic. Adding too many can create complexity you don’t need, especially for large brands like Subway,” said Fabre.

The heat is on. Sauces can be a huge differentiator and a competitive edge. Restaurants that offer a variety of sauces are a step ahead, but a signature spicy sauce is a must-have. “When consumers say they want hot, they want hot, not a commoditized hot that’s for everybody,” said Syracuse.

When Subway began its menu overhaul about three years ago, Fabre took a hard look at the sauce lineup and realized they needed more spice. He added a couple of hotter sauces, including Baja Chipotle, and recently rolled out Creamy Sriracha to all locations. At Krispy Krunchy Chicken, the signature Cajun marinade has been reworked to make it spicier.

Impactful menu innovation should have low impact on labor. Adding too many new SKUs and new prep techniques when developing a menu item or LTO puts a lot of stress on the back-of-house and frontline prep teams. Subway tries to tap into its pantry as much as possible and cross-utilize ingredients already on hand. Others are partnering with suppliers to create proprietary and labor-saving products that fit with the brand’s mission.

In the panel on “Ground-Breaking Growth,” Scott Mezvinsky of Taco Bell said, “You don’t want to put complexity back at team members. We’re spending time on simplifying operations and using tech to make the team member experience better.”

But, said Christine Barone, CEO and president of Dutch Bros Coffee during the growth panel, “innovation makes the job more exciting for the team. If our team members love a new product, they’ll talk about it and it sells.”

Jose Armorio, CEO of Bojangles added, “Today’s consumer is looking for a great experience with great food and great people. A streamlined menu and less complexity on the job allows the team to focus on the experience.”

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