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Raising the cheesesteak

Steak performs well for Cousins Subs, because core customers see it as a point of differentiation for a sandwich QSR, says Justin McCoy, VP of marketing at the 122-unit chain based in Menamonee Falls, Wis. So in the last quarter of 2014, R&D developed a cheesesteak that layers a more generous portion of steak with premium ingredients. Guests have been willing to pay for the higher-end sandwich, says McCoy, already making it one of the strongest LTOs in Cousins’ history, despite the cost of beef.

1. Beefing it up

Cousins sources frozen, thinly sliced steak cut from the rib-eye cap. “We spec about 50 percent more meat than we used a couple of years ago,” says McCoy. The chain also is purchasing more steak across the menu, which helps control costs. In the 70 percent of Cousins’ locations equipped with flat tops, steak is grilled to order. The rest of the units spec precooked, sauced steak slices to warm in the microwave.

2. Signature saucing

For this LTO, Cousins brought back bistro sauce—a proprietary product used in past menu items to good customer response. It’s a blend of olive oil, tomato puree, horseradish and garlic. “We sauce the bread first, before layering on the other ingredients. The tomato base and horseradish notes pair well with the steak,” says McCoy.

3. Kicking the can

Cousins is using presliced, preseasoned, vacuum-packed mushrooms, which are sauteed to order on the flat top along with the steak. Canned mushrooms, used on past steak sandwiches, didn’t deliver the fresh taste, texture and quality wanted to add a perception of value to this sub, McCoy says. 

4. Finishing touches

Melted Swiss rounds out the cheesesteak. The team tried provolone and cheddar, but those richer, more assertive cheeses overpowered the sandwich, says McCoy. Strips of cooked bacon, already in inventory for a BLT, complete the build. Bacon further boosts the value perception, he says, pushing up the price.

5. Minimizing distractions

Lettuce and tomato initially were included, but gave up too much moisture in the hot sandwich. Cousins’ existing garlic herb bread wasn’t a good match either. “We went with Italian bread as the carrier so it wouldn’t detract from the flavor of the bacon or sauce,” says McCoy. 

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