The dismal economy may be casting a pall across the restaurant industry, but operators say that innovation nonetheless remains key to keeping your concept front of mind with consumers.
According to several past winners of Nation’s Restaurant News’ Hot Concepts! awards, knowing the likes, dislikes, wants and needs of today’s consumers and constantly trying to meet them is the way to stay hot no matter the economic environment.
“You always need to be looking at ways to stay relevant with your guests,” says Jim Greco, chief executive of Bruegger’s Enterprises Inc. , parent of the 280-unit, Burlington, Vt.-based Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery chain, which was named a Hot Concepts! honoree back in 1995.
“That generally means mass innovation, though it doesn’t mean constantly introducing new products,” he said. “But it could, however, mean improvements in ingredients or the appearance of your restaurants or how you position or market yourself.”
According to a recent report from Chicago-based Technomic Inc., many operators are working overtime to keep their offerings exciting for regular customers and to lure new ones. Technomic’s Menu Monitor identified 547 limited-time and new items on menus in October at the 250 chains the service studies. That figure represented the largest number of menu additions in five years and was 40 percent higher than the monthly average for 2008, Technomic said.
At Bruegger’s, which is 25 years old this year, menus are not the only element constantly under review, Greco said.
“Over the years we’ve changed the appearance of our bakeries—the most recent design we’ve used is called New England Farmhouse because that’s what it is reminiscent of,” he said. “We’ve incorporated it into all of our units new and old over the last two years. And in terms of products, we’ve introduced fair-trade and organic coffee, improved the quality of our soups, added a whole other category—salads—and removed all of the trans fats from the products that had them. We introduced a new line of desserts and [a variety of] flats and breads.
“In addition, we’ve innovated in the form of our marketing,” he continued. “Several years ago we came up with a new look and message [that emphasized] the wholesomeness of our products. We think all of this has kept our business relevant and, as a result, popular.”
Greco noted that Bruegger’s systemwide sales were approximately $46 million during the second quarter ended July 8, an 11.3-percent increase over the same period a year earlier.
Evolving a concept is crucial to keeping it hot, said Husein Kitabwalla, president of Gaithersburg, Md.-based foodservice contractor Sodexo USA’s Retail Brand Group . The Retail Brand Group operates Jazzman’s Café and Pandini’s, Hot Concepts! honorees in 2004 and 2006, respectively.
Having Jazzman’s acknowledged as hot “has been one of the most gratifying things,” he said. “In the coffee category there is a lot of clutter, so for Jazzman’s getting that validation gave us the confidence to further broaden and position our brand. Today it is not just a coffee concept; it serves everything from sandwiches to proprietary tea beverages. It’s been a great journey for us since winning, and as we celebrate our 10th anniversary [we also are celebrating] tremendous growth: 300 percent, with over 200 locations.”
As far as Pandini’s, an Italian-theme fast-casual chain, is concerned, he added, “we’ve seen about 70-percent growth in store openings since receiving the Hot Concepts! award.”
The Retail Brand Group is careful about how and where it decides to open new stores, Kitabwalla said. Since the group is an offshoot of an on-site foodservice company there is more leeway to grow in nontraditional locations.
“Obviously, a cafe is not for everyone, and a cart or kiosk might be a better fit for others,” he said. “With Pandini’s, there is an opportunity to do limited service, so as a result an express concept has emerged. We can make a smaller version and have a better [return on investment] than with a full buildout as a result.”
At the Middleboro, Mass.-based Not Your Average Joe’s casual-dining chain, corporate executive chef Chris Bodington said that embracing the public’s desire for more seasonal and local cuisine has helped keep the 2000 Hot Concepts! winner on the cutting edge and in the forefront of its customers’ minds.
“It’s part of my job to keep the food in step with upcoming trends in business,” he said. “[Being eco-friendly] is definitely something we’re trying to focus on wherever and whenever possible. From a marketing standpoint, it’s trying to stay up with the times. And our customers, when they see what we’re doing, say they’re so happy we’re doing it.”
As part of the 16-unit chain’s sustainable initiatives, Bodington spearheaded during the summer an “Eat Local” campaign that “basically emphasizes as many local products that we can on a monthly basis,” he said.
“One of the troubles we have is seasonality,” he said, noting that the program, begun last year, has gotten a very positive reception and so is worth continuing despite its inconvenience and higher cost.
Being able to separate fads from trends is also important, Bruegger’s chief executive Greco said.
“You need to have a good sense for what trends are developing and try to stay on top of them,” he said. “Not every trend is something you need to jump on; some are fads. So try to decide which ones have staying power and be responsive to them.
“Remember back in 2004 when the low-carb diet was so heavy? It was all that people talked about and it just had all the signs of being a fad. It got too big, too fast, and there was nothing in the past like that that had any kind of staying power. Gauge whether there is real weight or merit behind what is being said.”