Last September, Shoney’s a 147-unit family-dining chain based in Nashville, rolled out a new menu to appeal to a younger, more food-focused crowd. Corporate executive chef Eric Cleveland discussed some of the changes, as well as finding the balance between attracting new customers and satisfying old ones.
Tell me about the new menu.
We’re doing some things to focus on bringing in the Millennials and the young families. For instance we’re doing some grilled whitefish items. We also did a grilled salmon with a sweet heat glaze, grilled chicken with a cucumber cranberry relish. We’re doing a chicken Florentine, open-faced chicken pot pie and then a spicy chicken-fried sandwich.
So, it’s a lot of items that are better for you, apart from the fried chicken sandwich, but also with bolder, more assertive flavors.
That is correct.
Tell me about the fried chicken sandwich.
Our chicken breast is fresh, never frozen and we have a spicy breading on it and this spicy hot oil sauce on it with a spicy mayo and a cool pickled coleslaw and fresh pickles on a toasted brioche bun.
Is that a variation on Nashville hot chicken?
I don’t want to say we’re mimicking what somebody else is doing, but being a Nashville-based chain we have to try to stay with local flavors and this is one of the items that we produced.
Any plans to change your beverage offerings?
We are working on new beverages all the time — enhancing our shake flavor profile, enhancing our smoothies, looking at flavored teas, cold brewed coffees as well as light spritzers — crafted sodas.
We are still in test with some of these items. But we will be seeing a lot of those different platforms of beverage on our menus in 2017.
What are you doing to retain your current audience?
Just taking those home-favorite ideas and doing little tweaks to them. Like the new open-faced pot pie. We took that home-comfort favorite and just did little tweaks to it.
So, it’s a little better, since it doesn’t have pastry on top, but it’s still in a pie shell?
Yes, with savory gravy, chicken, green peas, carrots, a little bit of mushrooms, also available with turkey.
Why did you make it open-faced? Was it to make it lighter, or more Instagrammable?
The visual appeal of it says that Shoney’s is trying to elevate their presentation a little bit more but still maintain that comfortability of the food.
What would you say are the highlights of the new menu?
The sweet heat-glazed salmon, the grilled chicken with the cucumber cranberry relish, which is lighter fare. We also introduced brown rice with sweet red and yellow peppers in it. And all of the items seem to be going very, very well with our customers.
We’re known for our fresh food bar — all you care to eat — and we would love to get more business off of the menu for those who are not all-you-care-to-eat eaters.
How far are your customers interested in going in terms of bold flavors and exotic dishes?
I’m a firm believer in implementing new flavors, educating our customers, but we have to do it at a slow rate. We implement some new flavor profiles on our fresh food bar.
I’d think that’s a safer bet for your guests, because if they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it.
They can move on to the next item. Exactly.
So what are some new items on your fresh food bar?
One of the big things for us is our Saturday Night Seafood Bar. Over the past year we’ve added boiled crawfish, steamed mussels over rice and a seafood paella. We’ve also done some creamy, cheesy seafood bakes, and those seem to be going very well.
Mussels are kind of adventurous for a Shoney’s customer.
Mussels and crawfish are both very adventurous, but you know the only way to test the water is to jump out there in it.
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