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John Li, vice president of culinary innovation at Wendy’s, and Scott Randolph, vice president of culinary at IHOP, agreed that focusing on the most frequently ordered items was essential to keeping customers happy.

Customers will let restaurants experiment if they deliver on the basics according to chefs from Wendy’s, IHOP

The corporate chefs both say great execution is essential

Menu simplification has proven to be an important tool in the kit of many restaurants, but if operators win their guests’ trust by executing their core items well, they’ll be able to sell more experimental and premium items too, according to the panelists of a recent Digital Dive discussion in Nation’s Restaurant News’ CREATE webinar series on the topic of “The Future of Menu Innovation.”

John Li, vice president of culinary innovation at Wendy’s, and Scott Randolph, vice president of culinary at IHOP, agreed that focusing on the most frequently ordered items was essential to keeping customers happy.

Randolph said family-dining chain IHOP, which has about 1,700 locations, reduced its menu at the onset of the pandemic to make sure that guests got their favorite core menu items made as well as possible.

“We don't have to train as hard for our cooks. Our wait staff doesn't have to be trained as diligently so we can focus on our core menu items,” he said, noting that 30% of his menu, and most other chains’ menus, feed about 80% of guests.

That didn’t mean Randolph and his team weren’t innovating. IHOP introduced burritos and bowls to draw more traffic after breakfast. That had been a priority for the chain, which has long enjoyed good breakfast traffic, since before the pandemic. For example, it reformulated its burger in 2018. But that took on a new sense of urgency after breakfast traffic dried up as stay-at-home orders were issued in March of 2020.

Off-premises dining also took on new importance as takeout and delivery sales soared with the pandemic and remain at 25%-26% of total sales, according to Randolph.

“Lucky enough for us, we started working on packaging prior to COVID,” he said. So IHOP already has packaging with vents that allow its pancakes to stay hot without sweating.

Wendy’s, on the other hand, launched breakfast at what was probably the worst possible time: Early March of 2020.

Nonetheless, the daypart is performing well for the quick-service chain of around 6,800 restaurants worldwide: In the third quarter of last year it contributed to 6.5% of same-store sales growth.

“We've been more than surprised at how well it's been accepted by our fans,” Li said of the breakfast rollout. “We wanted to make sure that the food hit on all levels and we felt like we've done that, and it's proven out in regard to how well it's been performing in market despite the fact that we're still not back to normal.”

Li said that Wendy’s customers also responded well to more out-of-the box items, such as the Jalapeño Popper Chicken Sandwich introduced as a limited-time offer in February, which was a fried chicken breast topped with jalapeño cream cheese, three slices of bacon, cheddar cheese sauce, six jalapeño pepper slices and pepper Jack cheese on a premium bun.

He said that and other “Made to Crave” items — Wendy’s more experimental, premium platform — saw record sales.

Li said that if the basic menu items are executed well then customers trust operators to let them try new things.

“You're still delivering what customers want; in a period like this they actually just want to be happy,” he said. “Everything else around them is probably not so great, and if for five bucks it can be an experience that makes them feel better, that's a pretty good solution for not a lot of money.”

IHOP also toyed with what Randolph called “creative innovation” such as the Steakhouse Bourbon Bacon, which was an LTO of thick-cut pork belly cooked in sous-vide and treated with hickory smoke and a bourbon glaze.

“We just wanted to show our culinary chops,” he said. But he and his team also remained focus on great execution of items such as pancakes and bacon, noting that more than 60% of IHOP guests order bacon.

“We have a timer with our bacon, we cook it around the clock so our customer always gets the best crispy perfect slice of bacon every time,” he said.

Wendy’s is also rolling out new fries this month that stay hot and crispy longer, and thus perform better when delivered.

Li said it took Wendy’s two years to develop the fries.

“Sometimes the simpler things are the harder to develop and execute … I was surprised and shocked at how hard it was going to be,” he said.

The Digital Dive panel was sponsored by V&V Supremo. Join us in Denver Oct. 4-6 for CREATE: The Future of Foodservice.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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