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Restaurant R&D shifts to warp speed

The pandemic plunged most chains into survival mode. But now, with widespread vaccinations on the horizon, there’s reason for hope—and innovation.
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Restaurant R&D took a pandemic-necessitated pause for a good chunk of last year. But many chains are now pressing fast forward on not only new menu items but on other creative initiatives.

“The pandemic definitely disrupted our 2020 calendar,” said Rick Petralia, director of culinary innovation at Fazoli’s. “During dine-in closures, we had no way to conduct any research. Facilities at our typical research partners were not available for obvious reasons and we were not able to conduct any sort of surveys in our dining rooms. Now that dine-in service has been reopened, we are able to conduct intercept surveys in our restaurants.”

The decline in new food items on restaurant menus started last April and continued through August, according to data from the Ignite menu platform of Technomic, a sister company of Restaurant Business. Since then, though, new menu items have exploded, with the number of innovations in December 40% higher than the previous year.

“So, it’s safe to say that innovation has been escalating, some of it being driven by reconfiguring menus for online ordering, but it’s also a reflection of attempts to revive traffic and sales, “ Rich Shank, vice president of research and insights for Technomic, said.

Pandemic precautions forced operators to get creative with the research and development. At Taco John’s, for example, testing moved outside the restaurant’s walls to determine what consumers thought about the the chain’s new Queso Blanco and a still-in-test Fried Chicken Taco.

“We have conducted quantitative product testing from our food truck in our company headquarter’s parking lot to consumers in their cars,” Taco John’s CMO Barry Westrum said. “Data is actually more accurate now, given the more realistic ‘in-the-car’ setting.”

Here’s a look at what other chains are testing for possible national rollout, now that the innovation pipeline is free-flowing:


Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen: Nugget return?

Popeyes, the reigning chicken sandwich king, is now testing chicken nuggets in a handful of markets. The bite-sized product has been off the chain’s menu for nearly a decade.


BJ’s Restaurants: A virtual concept, Slow Roast

The casual operator is running a 13-unit test of the venture, an off-premise-only concept that features the mother chain’s slow-roasted meats. The concept was reverse-engineered to ensure it doesn’t overtax the BJ’s kitchens where the menu will be prepared, according to management. BJ’s CEO Greg Trojan explained that he and his team started out by determining what level of business the kitchens could support, and then working backward from there rather than starting with what sort of menu would customers embrace. 


Denny’s: The Melt Down

The home of the Grand Slam is testing a virtual melt-sandwich concept as it rolls out its first delivery-only brand, Burger Den. The Melt Down features grilled sandwiches marketed as hand-crafted. Management revealed in January that 23 units were testing the venture, with half of Denny’s domestic units having committed to adding the brand this spring.


Chipotle Mexican Grill: Carside pickup

Chipotle has been a much-copied innovator in the order-ahead drive-thru space with its super-successful Chipotlanes. But it hadn’t tried curbside pickup—until now. The fast casual is testing a “carside pickup” option at 29 locations in California. The option will be considered at restaurants where Chipotlanes are not a good fit.


Burger King: Time for a loyalty program

Burger King is testing a new loyalty program, Royal Perks, in several cities to try to win an advantage in the ultra-competitive quick-service sector. Wendy’s launched its rewards program last year and McDonald’s plans to debut its loyalty program nationally this year.


Olive Garden: An ‘I’m here’ feature for curbside service

Part of the new technology being eyed for Darden Restaurants’ largest casual chain is a feature intended to speed curbside-delivery transactions. As Darden CEO Gene Lee explained to investors, the Italian brand is testing a capability that allows customers to signal their arrival for a curbside pick-up by touching a link sent to their phones as part of the order’s confirmation.


McAlister’s Deli: Order at the table tech

Fast-casual McAlister’s Deli tested “tableside ordering” at a number of its units. The service model allows diners to bypass the line by taking a seat, ordering via the app and having a worker bring the food to the table. Customers like the added convenience, the chain’s president said.


Wingstop: Searching for the next wing

Wingstop has its eye on bone-in chicken thighs. The chain said late last year it was testing them in seven markets across the U.S., part of the chain’s “whole-bird strategy” that might get ease some of the pressure coming from volatile wing prices. Wingstop will likely reveal more about these dark-meat tests during its earnings release later this month.


Outback parent Bloomin’ Brands: A virtual Aussie Grill

With its first virtual concept, Tender Shack, now in 200 locations, the casual-dining giant is experimenting with a similar no-brick-and-mortar version of its fast-casual venture, Aussie Grill by Outback. The company has been mum about the specifics. Virtual locations of the sandwich and salad concept are in addition to the three physical restaurants currently in operation, all in Florida.


Smashburger: Giving breakfast a try

Late last year, Smashburger said it was testing all-day breakfast in a pilot program at 30 locations. The breakfast menu includes several sandwiches, as well as Breakfast Tots, coffees and milkshakes made with cold-brew coffee. The move is in response to changing consumer traffic patterns amid the pandemic, the chain’s CEO said.


Chipotle: ‘Stage-gate’ process going full speed

Chipotle has a number of new menu items in various stages of testing, part of the brand’s multi-step vetting process. The restaurant is currently testing quesadillas and and a smoked brisket that’s finished with a sauce made from Mexican peppers.

“Our goal is to strategically introduce new food and beverage items every year,” Nevielle Panthaky, Chipotle’s vice president of culinary and menu development, said. “Since 2018, we’ve leveraged our stage-gate process, which allows us to listen, test and learn from customer feedback, and iterate before deciding on a national launch strategy.”

The stage-gate process most recently brought about the national launch of Cilantro-Lime Cauliflower Rice, which Panthaky said has received an “overwhelmingly positive” response.

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