There are a lot of players and a lot of steps involved. Here's the rundown on who to invite to the table from the operations manager to the culinary professional and how to run the process from ideation to launch.
Menu development and innovation needs to be both creative and efficient, especially in an environment that is dynamic and consumer sensitive. Menu R&D is part of a business strategy for long-term success that focuses on building an interdisciplinary team of experts whose collective goal is to develop R&D strategies that are more efficient, while creating value that satisfies customer needs. The role of these experts is to ensure that there is a steady flow of new menu items being introduced. The principles and practices of menu R&D apply to all foodservice systems, large and small.
Successful menu innovation requires the expertise of people with a variety of different skills in areas including: managing and operating restaurants, food science and technology, culinary arts and marketing. Each of these disciplines has its own approach to solving problems and can therefore bring unique and useful perspectives to the menu R&D process.
In addition to a strong team effort, a systematic, well-defined, process-driven approach to menu R&D will increase efficiency and allow for successful innovation. Menu R&D is a non-linear, systematic process, in which culinary concepts are nurtured through organized ideation sessions, converted into menu concepts, prototypes tested for quality and feasibility, and scaled up for successful launch at the restaurant and multi-unit level.
Menu R&D, like all R&D, is an iterative self-correcting process that keeps the consumer needs in immediate focus—a guiding constant from ideation to product launch. Thirty years ago, product development was a process that pushed its way through the different disciplines, utilizing expertise as necessary when challenges or problems arose. These days, though, one of the core ideologies of menu R&D is that the team moves together through the entire R&D process, providing the collective knowledge and insight necessary to successfully navigate through the current business environment.
The operations manager provides valuable input when working with equipment and ingredient suppliers, helping customize orders to their specific needs. Throughout the menu R&D process, operations managers will be considering variable expenses (labor, utilities and food) and the complexity of the new menu item and how it will impact the flow of operations in the kitchen (especially during high-volume periods). The operations manager must consider the needs of the consumer, and how the new menu item can function within the restaurant’s brand.
Marketing/Consumer behavior specialists
The role of marketing and consumer behavior specialists in the menu R&D process is to discover the needs and wants of the customer (current or prospective) and to develop a strategy to create value that satisfies these needs. They help translate market analyses into consumer needs that can be used to build menu R&D strategies. They provide insight into repurchase intent and communicate to chefs what consumers consider valuable.
Food technologists are the technical and process-oriented members of the team. Food technologists are typically trained in food chemistry, food engineering, food safety, nutrition and sensory analysis. Food technologists follow advances in foodservice technology, ingredient functionality and processing technologies, and can implement these advances to ensure successful development and launch of a safe and high-quality menu item. Food technologists are typically found working for ingredient suppliers, R&D groups, flavor houses and equipment suppliers.
These team members (in most cases in-house chefs or independent contractors) share their expertise and skills to help foodservice operations develop creative, higher quality menu concepts that satisfy consumer needs. Chefs are looked upon for guidance during the ideation process because they understand the role new menu items play in a foodservice operation’s strategic plan. Chefs also provide expertise in kitchen logistics and flavor profiles, and can work directly with food manufacturers and equipment companies to find cost-effective solutions.
The R&D Process
Step 1: Ideation
Using a market analysis (usually conducted by the marketing member of the R&D team, or by an outside marketing firm), the team brainstorms on how to meet the consumer’s needs with new menu items. Typically, a facilitator is identified (most often the marketing team member) to help guide the team through this process and to keep the team focused on the consumer’s perception of quality. Chefs are key to this step, since they understand how to add value to ingredients by using culinary techniques and interpreting authentic traditional cuisines for the target consumer. The operations manager will consider equipment utilization, kitchen/restaurant layout, labor resources, restaurant brand identity, etc., and use this information to drive and direct the creative process.
Step 2: Exploration
The R&D team works to determine specific strategies that can bring its ideas to fruition. In this process, the team assesses its collective resources and identifies challenges and opportunities. Marketing team members will continue to direct the team toward the points of value identified in the market analysis, and anticipate specific market strategies that augment the evolving menu R&D plan. Chefs will introduce and define culinary technique and traditions that could be converted into process strategies that address consumer needs.
For example, the market analysis and subsequent ideation sessions might suggest that the consumer is looking for (but can’t find) desserts that are smaller and lower in trans-fats, and that incorporate Mediterranean flavors. The chef might come up with something such as “dessert tapas”: smaller dessert samplings, or desserts intended to be shared, that involve a light sauté or poach preparation and incorporate sweet and aromatic fruit-based sauces and chutneys. Restaurant operations managers will focus on the logistical issues raised by the strategies, while the food technologist will identify potential ingredient formulation and process strategies that will allow the optimization of safety and quality.
Step 3: Feasibility
The menu R&D team scrutinizes the strategies, assessing their feasibility and considering what can be achieved. The chef and food technologist will work together to source ingredients and identify appropriate process strategies to achieve the desired flavor, appearance and shelf life. Ingredients and processes, their respective costs and availability will be determined. The marketing and operations experts consider how the item fits within the brand and on the existing menu. The team continues on to the next step, or modifies its strategies. An accepted strategy will be considered a working plan with which to move forward.
Step 4: Validation
Prototypes produced using the accepted plan are evaluated to ensure that the team’s objectives are met. Products or their constituent ingredients are screened for desired sensory quality, and tested for optimal shelf life and safety (including physical, microbial and chemical). The restaurant manager confirms that the new item will not negatively impact the flow of production, the quality of service, or consumers. If tests indicate that the plan is flawed, the plan will be optimized and revalidated. Once a plan is accepted as valid, the item or its ingredients can be produced at the pilot plant (or co-packer) scale.
Step 5: Test marketing
To further evaluate the menu item in real-world situations, prototypes are produced and tested in the restaurant setting. The product might be introduced into one or two units as a limited-time offering or as special addition to the menu. Sales of the item will be a major indicator of its success, as will feedback from consumers. The test market may reveal unforeseen characteristics of the product and how it functions, in which case adjustment to the plan will be required, along with testing, to confirm resolution of the problem (validation).
Step 6: Launch
The menu item can be launched at all units once the team has demonstrated the item’s ability to sell, contribute to profits and meet consumer needs. The team facilitates and observes the launch, noting additional opportunities for optimization, and follows the progress of the menu item with an eye out for line extensions. If line extensions present themselves or are demanded by the consumer, the menu R&D team will be called on to head up the development.