It’s a rare sandwich that, when offered by a burger chain, sells better than a burger itself. And while the BBQ Brisket Sandwich launched last summer by Culver’s Franchising didn’t outsell the BBQ Cheddar Burger that was part of the same promotion, it came close.
On the other hand, the sandwich was successful enough to win this year’s Menu-Masters award for “Best New Menu Item Rollout.”
“The brisket sandwich outperformed the ribs and was pretty close to the burger,” says James Blystone, Culver’s director of marketing.
Those items were all part of the chain’s “Get Saucy this Summer” barbecue limited-time promotion.
“We know barbecue is a strong flavor for our guests, and we wanted to add some variety to the menu that no one had done before in our segment,” says Jim Doak, the company’s director of research and menu development.
A native of Houston, Doak grew up with barbecue, and as a veteran of casual-dining chains—he previously worked at Metro-media Restaurant group, which owned the Bennigan’s, Steak and Ale, Bonanza, and Ponderosa chains—he knew about themed product rollouts.
This promotion featured barbecue ribs, the BBQ Cheddar Burger, onion rings and the BBQ Brisket Sandwich.
Onion rings have long been on the menu, Doak explains, “but one of the things we like to do with a promotion like this is to have new news, but also to highlight signature items.”
Consultant Alan Hickok, managing director of Restaurant & Retail Strategies in Minneapolis, says promotions like these are an important part of Culver’s marketing strategy.
Get them in the door
“Those are the kind of things that you have to do to stay fresh and relevant,” he says, and whether the new or featured items sell well isn’t really the point.
“Whether people order them or not is almost immaterial, as long as it spurs them to try Culver’s,” he says. “That’s what they’re designed to do, really. If it gets them in the door, mission accomplished.”
Doak says the sandwich took about four months to develop.
“It really started off with creating the dry rub that we use with the ribs,” Doak says.
It is a brown-sugar-based rub with salt and a proprietary blend of spices that he developed two years earlier when the ribs were offered as an LTO for the first time.
“We kind of built on the platform of the ribs,” he says.
Hickok says that’s a key strategy for Culver’s.
“One aspect of Culver’s strategy that they execute very well is they build around their core products,” he says.
Doak partnered with one of Culver’s manufacturers, who smokes the brisket, slowly cooks it and then slices it for them.
ITEM: BBQ Brisket SandwichROLLOUT: June 2008, part of a “Get Saucy this Summer” promotionCOMPANY: Culver FranchisingHEADQUARTERS: Prairie du Sac, Wis.UNITS: 396 DESCRIPTION: rubbed and slow-smoked brisket, thinly sliced, grilled and topped with signature barbecue sauce and caramelized onions. Served on signature four-inch Kaiser rollWEIGHT/HEIGHT: 4 ounces of brisket, about three inches highPRICE: varies by location, $3.99-$4.49 for a sandwich only; $6.49-$6.99 as part of a value basketDEVELOPER: Jim Doak, director of research and menu development
If at first you don’t succeed
“It took a couple of passes to get it where we wanted it,” says Doak, who noted the biggest problem was using the right amount of spice rub—it took more than expected for its flavor to really come through.
“We adjusted the amount of rub and did a few things with the way the meat was being smoked and handled,” he says.
At that point, the sandwich was ready to roll.
Strawberry and raspberry flavors also were promoted in the chain’s custards and concretes—custard mixed with a choice of more than 30 toppings—which were recommended as accompaniments for the brisket sandwich and other “Get Saucy this Summer” items. That resulted in a “significant increase” in sales of those flavors. Onion rings sales got a bump, too, as did the chain’s pot roast sandwich.
“Our menu is fairly broad, and we have a lot of choice and variety,” Doak says, adding the brisket item helped underscore the fact that Culver’s sells more than burgers and frozen custard.
“[The pot roast is] kind of a quiet hidden gem on the menu,” Doak says, “and all boats rose when this [BBQ brisket] sandwich was out there.”
Doak says the chain’s size—396 units in 15 mostly Midwestern states—also worked to its advantage for this promotion.
“We’re big enough that it’s an advantage from a purchasing standpoint, but not so big that it’s a liability from a supply standpoint,” he says.
Blystone says the sandwich might come back again, but he won’t know until after this summer. He says Culver’s is in the process of putting together a product development plan for the next 18 months.
“Once we get through this summer’s test [of new products], we’ll make a decision,” he says. “Barbecue is very ‘Americana,’ and Culver’s is a Midwest, family-based organization, so it was a good fit for us and supports a lot of things that we wanted to do.”