Menu innovation drives restaurant visits

Growth in the restaurant industry will come near-term from grabbing market share from other concepts, said Warren Solochek, vice president of foodservice for The NPD Group.

“Those who stimulate interest with both innovative products and services while addressing consumers’ need to feel they are carefully managing their spending and receiving value will lead others through the recovery period,” said Solochek, who opened the “Business Case for Menu R&D” session at the Restaurant Leadership Conference.

Fast-casual players like Chipotle, Panda Express and Panera Bread are the clear winners in this race, NPD data revealed. “The fast-casual segment competes well in several areas, including health, value, taste, freshness and customization of food,” said Solochek.

Premium sandwiches are one of the signature offerings on many fast-casual menus. So  Robert Danhi, a consulting chef and author, and Michael Leitner, senior executive chef with ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston, followed Solochek’s presentation by taking the audience through a sandwich ideation exercise. The goal: differentiation. The vehicle: the Club Sandwich.

“Rather than thinking outside of the box, give me the box and I’ll find a unique way to fill it,” said Danhi. “Limited time is a factor in getting an item onto a menu.” The iconic Club Sandwich crosses international boundaries, is grounded in comfort and has a unique historical perspective. Plus, it’s a good platform for experimentation, Leitner added.

The pair of chefs then created two variations for the audience to taste, both incorporating the basic elements of the Club Sandwich: three layers of bread, mayonnaise or another spread, animal protein and vegetables. Leitner presented a Torta Club using a split, grilled bollilo roll, black bean and avocado spread (in place of mayo), roast chicken, chorizo, a diced tomato and cilantro relish and shaved cabbage. Danhi went Asian with a Vietnamese-style Banh Mi Club. It featured a toasted, light baguette, a scallion butter-mayonnaise mixture, American smoked turkey, crispy Chinese bacon, pickled lettuce with herbs and sliced tomato with drizzles of fish sauce and soy sauce.

While differentiation is important, Danhi cautioned against “jumping the shark” or getting too far out. “We can’t afford to develop ideas just for the idea’s sake. Aim for a gold standard with responsibility; a responsibility to operations, cost and relevancy to your menu,” he explained. Most in the audience felt these two sandwiches hit the mark.

In closing, both chefs agreed that as you go through the R&D process, it’s important to keep a searchable database of your ideas so you can return to them for inspiration.

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