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Restaurants play with customizable bowls

It’s super bowl season — not the one for football champions, but one celebrating meals confined to one dish.

In recent weeks Taco Bueno and Boston Market have joined such brands as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Freshii, KFC, Pollo Tropical and Taco Bell by rolling bowls onto their menus. 

The bowls appeal to a guest’s desire for customization, comfort and value, while giving operators more control over food costs.

“I think smart operators engineer the bowls to provide a good quantity of food,” said menu consultant Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Company in Atlanta and a contributing editor of Nation’s Restaurant News. “But the portion of the most expensive ingredient, the protein, is very tightly controlled, and it’s typically not the most expensive cut of meat.

“However, since it’s surrounded by an abundance of other 
ingredients, typically vegetables, there’s a strong patron perception of value. So bowls are really a win-win,” Kruse added.

Versatile servings

Many quick-service and fast-casual operators also see bowls as tapping into two hot culinary trends: the desire for customization and healthful options.

“A significant number of consumers have shown a preference and an interest in eating lighter fare, especially [given] the freshness and quality of ingredients inherent in bowls,” said Kim Hennig, chief marketing officer for Taco Bueno, a 180-unit Mexican fast-casual chain based in Dallas. “And bowls also offer the ability to customize.”

Hennig said customers have come to expect the customization that is in the DNA of such fast-growing brands as Chipotle and Subway, especially those consumers born between 1980 and 2000.

“Millennials have grown up with it, so it’s a key factor for them,” Hennig said. “But now it transcends different demographics; we see it among younger and older and male and female.”

Bowls also offer patrons a way to find a price point they can stomach. The Bueno Bowl platform at Taco Bueno, which was introduced in late September, starts at $3.99 for the veggie bowl and $4.99 for the chicken or taco-meat version. The steak version starts at $6.49.

Patrons decide between a base of warm cilantro-lime rice or a romaine salad mix, and a basic bowl also includes vegetarian black beans, pinto beans or refried beans. Additional toppings include corn salsa, pico de gallo, grilled onions and peppers, romaine lettuce mix, and shredded Cheddar cheese. Two dressings are offered: creamy 
jalapeño ranch or low-calorie citrus chipotle vinaigrette.

Extras can be added, including sour cream, 39 cents; guacamole, 79 cents; chips, 79 cents; crumbled bacon, 99 cents; and queso, $1.29.

“This range of options allows guests to create everything from low-calorie or low-carb options to traditional Mexican food favorites like taco salad,” the company said.

Modern comfort

In early September Boston Market introduced for a limited time its Market Bowls. The bowls feature a choice of rotisserie chicken, roasted turkey breast or meatloaf, along with two sides. The ingredients are combined in one bowl and topped with a choice of beef gravy, poultry gravy or one of three sauces: mild zesty barbecue, medium-hot sweet Thai garlic or medium-hot honey habañero.

The bowls, which sell for $6.99, will be available through Nov. 24 at all 476 units of the Golden, Colo.-based fast-casual chain.

A range of bowl dishes is also available at Pacific Catch, a four-unit casual-dining chain in San Francisco.

“We started with them nine years ago, and they remain one of our No. 1 selling items,” said Tom Hanson, chief operating officer for Pacific Catch.

Pacific Catch offers $15 Pan-Asian Rice Bowls to which proteins can be added. Initially, only two bowl types were available: wasabi and teriyaki.

“Two years ago we added two new bowls to our lineup,” Hanson said, citing the Korean Barbecue and Thai Curry versions. 

Bowls are also hearty, Hanson noted.

“We look at it as a kind of new-age comfort food,” he said. “So many people are used to eating rice ... and people are into the ethnic flavors.”

And a wide array of toppings is available. For instance, the Japanese Wasabi bowl features as its base a wakame salad, avocado, daikon sprouts, cucumber, ginger, sesame seeds, shredded nori and a soy-wasabi sauce. It can be topped with four proteins, ranging from seared ahi tuna to grilled salmon, which is a $1 add-on. Hawaiian poke on the Japanese Wasabi bowl has become the top-seller, he added.

“We find that most of the time customizing a bowl is pretty darned simple, and we’ve always encouraged it,” Hanson said. “Some do it with half brown rice and half lettuce, which makes it a healthier dish than it already was.” The original version offered two cups of rice.

That capacity for customer innovation migrated to the menu about two years ago, Hanson said.

“It was an unspoken, kind of secret menu that we picked up on for the regular menu,” he said.

Food costs for the bowls are easy to manage, he added, even in the face of rising seafood commodities prices over the past two years. The bowl format allows for extra pricing on the proteins.

“We haven’t changed portions, but we have taken price a couple of times in the last three years,” Hanson said.

Taste and space

He advised any operator considering a bowl format to “make sure they are nice and hot with the rice and make sure the toppings have a lot of flavors going on. You want something that cools the palate. If you have a hot protein and hot rice, you want something with a little acid that helps the taste buds open back up.”

Even independent operators are getting into the bowl game. Otis Jackson’s Soul Doug in North Hollywood, Calif., recently offered a Veggie Soul Bowl featuring collard greens, grilled mixed peppers and sautéed red beans over rice with sauce.

In the quick-service format, Taco Bueno conducted a limited in-store test of its Bueno Bowls before bringing them to market.

“We put our bowls into a test module before we rolled them out,” Hennig explained. “So we got a good handle on the percentage of customers who chose each one and various components and how many components went into each bowl. So going into a systemwide rollout, we had a pretty good idea on the food costs.”

Operationally, however, the bowls raised eyebrows, she said.

“Our managers were a little nervous going into it because it’s a little different production model for them,” Hennig said.

But since a sizable portion of Taco Bueno’s products was being customized already, “it has not presented any operational difficulties for us,” she said.

However, marketing the new offering was a challenge because of the customization possibilities, Hennig said.

“Each bowl is customized to [a customer’s] own preference, so showing them visually is a challenge,” she said. “In the stores we show a vegetable bowl that is significantly lighter, and we showed a chicken bowl and another with our steak, as well.”

Given the response to date, Taco Bueno is considering expanding the line, Hennig said.

“I think we’re going to see more and more of it,” she said. 

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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