Red Robin Tavern Double and fries

Chains embrace collaborative approach to R&D

McDonald's, Red Robin, Denny's and other chains take a more synergistic approach to menu development.

If the race to create new menu items for restaurants might have been likened to a middle-distance run in the past, it’s more of a sprint today.

The pace of core-menu introductions and limited-time offerings has quickened dramatically as such operators as McDonald’s, Denny’s, Darden Restaurants and Ignite Restaurant Group increasingly turn to new products to drive sales and please customers who feast on the new and trendy.

As a result, the research chef no longer works in a vacuum. Collaboration across company departments and with outside players such as vendors and food manufacturers is the rule. The latter offer everything from consumer research to product ideation to skilled culinarians to work alongside a chain’s own chefs.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers is among chains bringing R

Meanwhile, some restaurant companies that formerly outsourced their R&D work or handled it in the field are consolidating their efforts in-house, sometimes in new test kitchens, like at Brinker International and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers.

“Cycle times in the R&D world are much faster than they have ever been,” said Jim Doak, vice president of menu innovation and corporate executive chef of Houston-based Ignite, parent of two casual-dining concepts, the 130-unit Joe’s Crab Shack and 15-unit Brick House Tavern + Tap. “We have gone from delivering products that used to take anywhere from nine to 12 months to something more like three-to-six-month cycles.

“Even 10 years ago you would have seen a cycle time closer to 18 to 24 months,” Doak added. “It has definitely changed.”

And consumers are helping to drive that change.

 According to a study conducted by the Chicago-based research firm Technomic, an increasing number of customers say they are interested in trying new selections at restaurants. In a 2009 study 42 percent of 1,500 adults 18 and over either agreed or agreed completely that they would be more likely to visit a restaurant that offers new and/or innovative flavors. In 2011 that figure had increased to 53 percent.

The Technomic study also found that 64 percent of respondents considered ordering new or different menu options to be “a fun, exciting dining experience at restaurants.”

Faster pipeline

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No less a heavyweight than McDonald’s is shifting into higher gear, vowing a faster and more prolific pipeline of new products, including premium limited-time offers, to grow traffic and market share.

Some restaurant companies that had decentralized R&D activities are bringing them closer to home. Darden set the pace in 2009 when it opened a new 469,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Orlando, Fla., which includes test kitchens for Olive Garden, Red Lobster and its other brands. To encourage idea sharing, a culinary staff that had worked in a number of separate buildings was gathered under one roof there.

Brinker in Dallas is remodeling a building on its corporate campus into a 17,000-square-foot state-of-the-art test kitchen and consumer research center. It will replace a test kitchen that is “woefully outdated and undersized,” according to chairman Doug Brooks.

“We will be doing a lot of research right here on campus that we had farmed out,” Brooks said. “Our chefs, our insights teams, our marketing folks will be able to work faster.”

Denny Marie Post

This month, Red Robin, the Greenwood Village, Colo.-based casual-dining chain, opened its first dedicated test kitchen facility. Christened Yummm U and measuring more than 12,000 square feet, it includes kitchens for the Red Robin and Burger Works concepts as well as a consumer learning lab.

“My expectation is that this absolutely is going to ramp up our pace of innovation and drive executional excellence because we can work things out more in a laboratory setting before we run through them at the restaurants,” said Denny Marie Post, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Red Robin, which has more than 470 units.

It’s a necessity to keep up with the consumer, Post said, adding: “It no longer takes a couple of years for a trend to occur. A trend can occur overnight.”

The need for speed has changed the way chains conduct R&D.

New-product think tank

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“It’s much more of a creative, innovative think tank that is always working and looking forward,” Ignite’s Doak said. “It is a continuous development cycle of new products. We are not calendar-driven anymore like we were in the past because we know the need and desire for what we are creating are there, and it is a matter of plugging in the right products at the right time to meet the guests’ demands.”

This is forcing restaurants in general to be “way more collaborative up front than companies were in the past,” Doak said. At Ignite the operations, supply-chain and marketing departments work in concert with the culinary department from the start of a project.

“It takes those four disciplines working together to move at the speed that the guest in the market expects at this point,” Doak said.

Typifying Ignite’s collaborative approach is the Maine Event at Joe’s Crab Shack, an LTO with a quartet of lobster dishes. The supply-chain team identified the crustacean as a well-priced product for promotion, while the marketing department confirmed its appeal among Joe’s  Crab Shack’s guests, Doak said. 

Joe’s Crab Shack said its popular Lobster Pot Pie, topped with puff pastry and a lobster claw, reflects a joint effort of several in-house teams.

Particularly in step with marketing objectives is the chain’s Lobster Pot Pie, topped with puff pastry and a whole lobster claw, which showcases the scratch and speed-scratch cooking done at Joe’s Crab Shack. The Maine Grill, a grilled, whole, split lobster served with bacon-wrapped shrimp and scallops, highlights the concept’s grill platform.

Also vouching for the collaborative nature of R&D was Red Robin’s Post.

“If you are not collaborating with the supply chain from the very beginning and not collaborating with operations from the very beginning, you are just wasting time,” Post said. “What has happened now is that product-innovation folks have to be able to lead large cross-functional initiatives and really be strong leaders across the organization, not just hang out in their kitchens.”

A flow of successful new products helps a restaurant brand connect with consumers in a marketplace flooded with competing offers. That is well-understood at Denny’s. The Spartanburg, S.C.-based family-dining restaurant chain has an aggressive product-development stance that involves numerous company players as well as franchisees and vendors.

“Over the last several years we have really stepped up our efforts to provide relevancy and news for the guest,” said John Dillon, vice president of marketing and product development at the 1,680-unit chain.

In the process, Denny’s franchisees provide inspiration and counsel, Dillon said. Vendors and food manufacturers get involved early in the process, as well, to share in ideation with company team members.

“We view them as extensions of our team,” Dillon said.

Denny’s current LTO, Complete Skillet Meals, features three-course meals at a starting price of $8.99 in more than 100 possible meal combinations. It leverages the skillet meal platform, successful at breakfast, for the lunch and dinner dayparts, while emphasizing value.

Newly added to the core menu are Denny’s Signature Diner Roast, Dark Diner Roast and Signature Decaf Roast coffees. The java line required two years of development, including close work with vendors, operations staff and franchisees, “as well as keeping our ear to the ground to hear what the guest was telling us during the development process,” Dillon said.

“It’s not product development in a vacuum,” Dillon said. “It is also working with the finance team, the operations team and the franchise groups to make sure we develop products and promotions that can attract the guest and be successful in the restaurants.”

Variations on a theme

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An effective way for chains to launch new items quickly and with less risk is to run variations on existing products. For example, at Red Robin one of the several customization styles of the Tavern Double line of two-patty burgers featured ghost peppers, billed as one of the world’s hottest peppers.

“By working very early with the supplier, we were able to move that to market certainly in less than six months — it may have been closer to four months,” said Post.

Another example is found in Red Robin’s Tropical Sunburn Tavern Style, which uses ingredients already in-house, like jalapeños, grilled pineapple and mango slaw.

“Existing ingredients combined in different ways can create great opportunity,” Post said.

Also dealing with the quicker pace is Darren Gray, senior manager of menu development for Fazoli’s, a 217-unit quick-service Italian restaurant chain based in Lexington, Ky. 

Darren Gray

The formerly fixed company promotional calendar “is now the most fluid document in the world,” Gray said. “We’ll map out sort of what we want to do, but then we will look at a new trend or some consumer data that comes out and say, ‘Wow, we need to do this.’ So you find yourself reacting very quickly to those changes and updating your calendar accordingly.”

Gray said he finds it particularly important to consult Fazoli’s purchasing team at the start of development, in light of volatile food costs.

“I’m going to ask: Who do we want to work with, seasonally speaking? Can we control the cost of a product better in summer versus winter? If we are using a commodity, was there a good crop or a bad crop?” Gray said.

Vendor resources

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Food manufacturers, too, are key resources.

“Being the only guy who does culinary in the building, it’s great to be able to talk to our suppliers and bring them into our facility to do ideation sessions,” Gray said. “I utilize their expertise and their chefs frequently, not only to see what’s new but to learn from them and apply their skills to what I am doing.”

In turn, Gray also may visit a manufacturer’s research facilities.

“Getting out of my building and my comfort zone gives me new things to learn and sometimes pushes me in new directions,” he said.

Fazoli's Pizza Baked Spaghetti LTO

Fazoli’s Pizza Baked Spaghetti LTO — spaghetti topped with marinara sauce and cheese and baked with pizza ingredients like pepperoni on top — has been very successful, according to Gray.

“And the best thing about that is there were no new items associated with that dish. We have been able to avoid write-offs when the promotions are finished. To me that one is really a home run for the company.”

At Shari’s Restaurants, based in Beaverton, Ore., product development is stimulated by a comprehensive new-product-vetting process and input from vendors. The 99-unit Shari’s family-dining chain is known for a menu dotted with dishes that would seem to be at home in higher-priced segments of the industry — like Cedar Plank Salmon, Grilled Chicken Mozzarella Bruschetta, Center Cut New York Strip Steak and Chicken Chimichurri — offered at family-dining prices.

This attracts customers who are increasingly sophisticated about dining trends — having been schooled by the food media — although still value minded.

“You can come to Shari’s and enjoy the things you may have seen on TV with your family — for 10 bucks,” said Kevin Bechtel, Shari’s senior vice president of purchasing, R&D and menu development.

When it tackles new products, Shari’s asks its vendors to present an industry trends overview based on the segments and dayparts that are significant to the chain. Shari’s looks beyond the family-dining segment to identify its competition, Bechtel said. For example, at weekday dinner Shari’s major competitors are some of America’s leading casual-dining chains. At weekday breakfast it primarily battles fast-casual restaurants.

“After they have presented the topline report and drilled down to our segments and dayparts, I challenge our vendors to get our menu and pantry list and find a hole in my menu,” Bechtel said. “If they come back with dishes they think would be good for Saturday and Sunday breakfast, let’s say, I have them come in and do an ideation session for my team.

“I tell all of our manufacturers, ‘Don’t let me go to a food show and see something new,’” Bechtel added. “I want to know about it well before then.”

Along the way Shari’s also benchmarks new ideas against current menu items and surveys its customers by e-mail for feedback on prospective additions.

Another company tapping the consumer and culinary resources of its vendors is Bruegger’s Enterprises Inc., based in Burlington, Vt., with 297 Bruegger’s Bagels units.

“Our soup company, for example, has a culinary team, and if I am developing soups, often it begins with a dialogue with their chef,” said Philip Smith, corporate executive chef.

Bruegger’s also has a process to re-evaluate core menu items and ingredients — like bagels, meats, cheeses and eggs — with an eye to improvement.

“Each of those can bear some scrutiny and be raised to a higher level,” Smith said.

Take the egg, a culinary staple with newfound trendiness, as indicated by the rising popularity of breakfast at any time of the day as well as the number of egg-topped burgers, sandwiches and salads.

“We sell a very fine egg sandwich to a lot of guests, made with an egg patty,” Smith said. “But is that what an egg truly is? I don’t know. We have to ask what our guests want. So we will test a notion of a fried egg or a freshly scrambled egg — a fresher version yet of what we do today.”