Questions for your R&D consultant

Need to outsource the development of a new menu item? Here’s what to ask before signing a contract: 

Do you specialize in menu development or product development?

There is a big difference between the two, explains Mark Crowell, founder of consulting firm CuliNex. Basically, product development would involve a culinologist developing a spicy pulled pork that could be manufactured at a plant. Menu development would involve a chef coming in and developing recipes for that pulled pork which you could use at all your locations.

Are you a member of a professional organization?

Mark Thomas, president of MDT Limited in Atlanta and an instructor in the culinary art of menu development at the CIA, stresses the importance of professional ethics and credibility when it comes to R&D. You don’t want to hire someone who is being paid by vendors to showcase their products if that doesn’t fit your program, he says. High standards are required of members of the American Culinary Federation, Research Chefs Association and Foodservice Consultants Society International.

Are we on the same page?

Look at the consultant’s background and experience to see if it’s a good fit for your project. Be sure you have clearly defined the project and written out a “wish list” of desired goals and outcomes. “The project director must communicate clear-cut specs, including food cost constraints, so we have enough information to bid on the job,” Thomas notes. Bob Davis, corporate executive chef of the 106-unit Max & Erma’s chain, agrees, but feels that setting very rigid limits can inhibit creativity. “I don’t talk about my equipment or labor limitations. To get a more exciting result, I prefer to talk about style and flavor,” he says. “Then it’s my job to format the product for Max & Erma’s.”

Can you give me a time estimate?

Manufacturers usually take six months to a year to develop a product and bring it to market. New menu items go more quickly, but the general rule of thumb is “the more units you have, the longer it takes to launch something new,” Crowell contends. Why? More on-site training is required.

What’s it cost?

Fees range from $600 to $2,500 a day, depending on whether you hire an individual or an R&D firm or team, but most fall within $800 to $1,500. “There are three ways consultants charge: on an hourly basis, project basis or by retainer,” says Thomas. The contract should spell out the estimated time the project will take so you have an idea of the final cost.

As your client, how much will I be involved in the process?

You should be actively involved. It’s also smart to involve various departments along the way, without stalling the process. “We’re a smaller concept, so I like to keep everyone in the loop—food and beverage, purchasing, operations, marketing, etc.,” says Davis. “I try to be inclusive so we have shared goals.” But every client is different, Thomas points out. “Often, I’m in on-site for four days, holding tasting sessions, getting feedback and refining. Other times, I develop an item on my own and get input only during the final tasting.”

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