COEX ’08: MenuMasters winners share innovation insights during COEX

COEX ’08: MenuMasters winners share innovation insights during COEX

PHOENIX —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“There is no question that innovation is the bedrock of the business, certainly in regard to restaurant concept development and most importantly from the point of menu development,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News and moderator of the COEX panel titled, “MenuMasters’ Recipe for Success: Innovation, Insights & Good Taste.” —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

She cited NRN’s MenuMasters award winners on the panel as producing the kinds of items that will have patrons “coming back again and again.” The annual MenuMasters awards program is sponsored by Ventura Foods LLC. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

The winner-panelists included: Robert Okura, vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef at The Cheesecake Factory [2]; Debra Olson, senior manager of product development for the 480-unit Golden Corral Corp.; Clifford Pleau, executive chef and director of culinary development for Darden [3] Restaurants’ Seasons 52; and Joe Scafido, chief creative and innovation officer for Dunkin’ Brands Inc. [4] —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

The panelists agreed that consumers are driving the menus, and that preferences have changed over the past five years. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“We came in on the cusp of the Atkins diet ending,” Pleau said, “so we were able to get away with less starch portions on our calculated calories on the plate. And the customer is really grasping the concept of a realistic portion. They came in at first expecting a certain-sized portion, and it’s not as big as they expected. That drove us to have a fairly large draw from the female segment, as much as 75 percent [of the customer base].” —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Pleau said Seasons 52 is looking to draw in more male customers. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“There was a need to develop some more masculine items on the menu, so we recently developed a turkey burger,” he said. “It seems counter to healthy food to have a burger there, but it satisfied that segment that was looking for something a little bit bigger. We cut a portobello [mushroom] on top, so it kind of replaces the feeling of bacon. We prop it up on a little pedestal, so it makes it four inches taller. It looks big.” —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Okura said The Cheesecake Factory is not linked necessarily to dieting in the consumers’ minds. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“But we do respond to what we hear from our guests,” he said. “We have introduced salads with low calories and low fat. We’re trying to add to that. Healthier choices are definitely something we’re offering. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“The other piece that we’ve responded to is the value-added component. We’ve taken some of the guests’ menu favorites, which were great for dinner but not so great for a lunch value, and we’ve created smaller portions at a lower price point during lunchtime. It’s been phenomenally successful.” —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

He said sales have actually gone up because lunch diners aren’t sharing entrées. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Olson of Golden Corral [5] said her customers are responding to new and bolder flavors at the buffet concept. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“Our new restaurant prototypes and new remodels have three new stations: the piazza, the pagoda and the hacienda,” Olson said. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

One of the more popular is the “pagoda” station with orange chicken that is light but has bold flavors, she said. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Scafido of Dunkin’ Donuts said the key change is “that consumers today are talking to us more than they ever have before, through customer-care lines and other feedback mechanisms.” —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“Great operators always listen to that feedback,” Scafido said. “That’s the change that’s the most significant that I’m picking up: more willingness, especially in our segment, for consumers to tell us if they are in fact getting what they believe is a value at that particular visit.” —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Scafido added that feedback also indicates what Dunkin’ Donuts [6] is lacking on the menu. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

The next big trend, Pleau said, is likely to be reducing sodium in Seasons 52 [7]’s menu items. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“It’s a lot easier to take the fat out and the calories out,” he said. “When you start messing with the salt, it gets a little more difficult.” —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Pleau said he’s settled on a strategy of distracting the diners’ palates with spices such as wasabi, ginger or cumin or something like citrus or chiles. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Olson said Golden Corral definitely sees a future in fresh-cut produce. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Okura said the customers generally trend toward a preference for Latin, Italian and Asian flavors. He foresees areas of Asian cuisine that are yet untapped. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

“We’ll be able to get into parts of that culture that are fantastic but not as well-known as Chinese or Japanese food,” Okura said. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.

Scafido said all segments over the past five years have determined that the customer wants at least some healthy options on the menu. —Innovation remains critical to a restaurant chain’s success, according to panelists at the Chain Operators Exchange 2008 here.