Ordering straight from the menu is becoming as antiquated as talking on a flip phone. In a 2015 Technomic survey, 72 percent of consumers said they now expect restaurants to allow them to customize meals. But what’s good for customers can be a struggle to execute. Operators cite slow service and higher food and labor costs as drawbacks to customization, the report found.
Tokyo Joe’s, a build-your-own Asian fast casual, offered two vegetable choices and two sauces when it launched 20 years ago. In response to demand, guests now can mix and match 12 sauces and 12 veggies, request a double chicken portion, make a bowl gluten-free and more, says founder Larry Leith.
Managing all those SKUs takes planning. “When we spec a product, we always make sure we can cross-utilize it in a salad, sushi roll or more than one menu item,” he says.
Although customization is in Tokyo Joe’s DNA, says Leith, “it opens us up to mistakes—there are seven to nine variables instead of one or two.” Technology helps, he says. The POS system prints a ticket color-coded to each ingredient, and an expediter reviews orders. “It slows down service a bit but increases accuracy,” says Leith.
Build-your-own in bulk
Fitness buffs who patronize Tokyo Joe’s build bowls to their nutrition specs, Leith says, and many were buying a few days worth of food at once. So late in 2015, the chain launched Joe’s Meal Plan, offering customized bowls to go for multiple days. Guests can order through an app, selecting their nutrient preferences, such as high protein. The meals are packed in rectangular bowls to stack easily in a home refrigerator and are priced at $7.50 to $9 each. “In addition to athletes, families are grabbing these customized meals in bulk,” Leith says.
The casual side of customization
Fast casual’s assembly-line formats adapt well to build-your-own meals, but the casual-dining model presents challenges. “The more customizable a dish is, the longer it takes for a server to write the order. Multiply that by a table of four, and it can stall service,” says Mike Thom, culinary director of Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom.
Nevertheless, Thom is capitalizing on what he calls the “be-your-own-chef” trend with the recent introduction of Craft-Your-Own Mac N’ Cheese. Servers direct guests to a special menu section listing available sauces, seasonings, proteins, veggies and toppings, all from Old Chicago’s existing inventory. “We tapped into the 40 pizza toppings in our pantry to extend customization,” he says.
The custom mac-and-cheese went through a lengthy test run at eight units before it launched chainwide in Fall 2015, allowing servers to work with the POS team to increase efficiencies. The tryout also gave staff a chance to experiment with flavor combinations and guide customers according to their taste preferences.
This DIY item has become a top seller, says Thom, but not every one has done as well. Although he won’t specify, he says, “guests must feel you’re doing something core to your roots, not customizing for customization’s sake.”