Spring, a love of Latin cuisine and a recipe file inspired the Southwest Ancho Chicken Salad dish at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, according to corporate executive chef Dave Woolley.
The Greenwood, Colo.-based casual-dining chain plans three limited-time offers a year and includes a salad in the spring and summer promotions. So Woolley was searching for salad ideas as he thumbed through Red Robin’s recipe book. A fan of Southwestern and Latin cuisine, he paused at an avocado-ranch dressing recipe.
“That sounded really tasty,” said Woolley, whose culinary experience spans fine dining and a stint running his own restaurant that featured a mix of Latin, Southwestern and Native American influences.
With a lot of testing and input from Red Robin staff and customers, Woolley created a salad with a high flavor profile and combination of ingredients that made it a standout among the chain’s two-dozen burgers and other dishes.
“We would love any kind of recognition for anything we do, but being recognized for a salad instead of a burger is really, really great,” said Woolley, who came to Red Robin almost four years ago to oversee research and development.
Woolley resurrected the avocado-Ranch dressing that is made from scratch and started designing a tortilla salad around it. It was tested and tweaked about three months before the final rollout on Feb. 10, 2009. It ran until April 5, 2009 and sold for $10.49.
Customers responded positively to the salad during the promotion, said Susan Lintonsmith, chief marketing officer for Red Robin.
“This salad sold very well, and we are pleased with the reaction it received from our guests,” she said.
Red Robin supported the LTO with a digital-marketing campaign that included e-mail blasts to members of a loyalty club. The 440-unit chain also ran two direct-mail campaigns that targeted households within a three-mile radius of every company-owned Red Robin. About a quarter of the chain’s units are franchised.
Because LTOs can help drive traffic, Red Robin is stepping up its marketing efforts this year and supporting special promotions with national advertising, Lintonsmith said.
“Part of our strategy is to demonstrate variety,” she said. “We’re trying to communicate our message of quality, flavor and value.”
Spice, not spicy
To create a strong flavor profile for the salad, Woolley started with the ancho chile—the dried version of a poblano chile.
“Ancho has a mild temperament with earthy and nutty undertones to it,” he said. Woolley tossed in garlic, cilantro and cumin, and then added water to turn the rub into a paste, which was brushed onto the chicken before going on the grill.
Red Robin’s broilers reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps sear in the juices of the meat. The chicken is then served sliced on the salad. Warm black beans on the salad also help the chicken retain some of its warmth, explained Woolley.
“Chicken gets cold when it is put on a cold salad, so we put another dimension of heat to it,” he said. “The beans also give a different texture.”
Red tortilla chips surround the salad’s bed of greens. Corn, pepper Jack and cheddar cheeses, slices of avocado, cilantro and grape tomatoes were sprinkled onto the dish.
“We wanted something different” with the grape tomatoes, Woolley said. “We all loved how sweet and easy to use they were. It’s not quite the same as a diced tomato or another style of sliced tomato. Plus we like the way it looked.” He topped it off with fried jalapeño rings.
“Pickled jalapeños were on the original, but internally we thought we needed more texture, so let’s put a great fried jalapeño out there,” Woolley said. “It has a light tempura batter on it. And initially we diced the avocado, but then switched to a sliced version.”
Before the final product was launched, it went through several tests, including reviews by consumer focus groups and employees. Red Robin then tested the salad in a couple of restaurants on the East Coast, West Coast and in Colorado.
“That allows us to work out the operational kinks,” Woolley said.
For the LTO, the salad was paired with the Burnin’ Love Burger, which included the fried jalapeño rings.
The Southwest Ancho Chicken salad was exceptional because of the integrity of its ingredients, said menu and restaurant analyst Phyllis Ann Marshall, president of FoodPower in Costa Mesa, Calif.
When she had the salad, she noted, the greens were torn, not chopped, into bite-size pieces, and the black beans and corn were evenly distributed. The chicken breast was cooked to order and arrived warm on the plate.
“A lot of times chicken for a salad like this is cooked ahead of time so it’s cold and a little on the rubbery and chewy side,” Marshall said. “But this was flavorful and moist. I give them high marks for offering a salad that matched the menu description.”
ITEM: Southwest Ancho Chicken SaladROLL OUT: Feb. 10 - April 5, 2009COMPANY: Red Robin Gourmet BurgersHEADQUARTERS: Greenwood Village, Colo.UNITS: 440DESCRIPTION: ancho-seasoned, grilled chicken breast on top of greens with black beans, corn, grape tomatoes, pepper Jack, cheddar cheese, fried jalapeño rings, avocado slices, cilantro, tortilla strips and cool avocado-ranch dressingWEIGHT: 643 gramsPRICE: $10.49DISH DEVELOPER: corporate executive chef Dave Woolley