It doesn't always take new products to develop a new menu item. Sometimes, all it takes is a little inventiveness and a bit of inspiration.
Tony Palombino, for example, found the inspiration for his latest gourmet pizza creation during a bartending competition. Most of the other ingredients were already in his restaurants.
Palombino, founder of the Louisville, Ky.-based Tony Boombozz pizza chain and a self-proclaimed bourbon fanatic, was judging the competition at the request of friend Jim Rutledge, master distiller at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky.
During the competition, Rutledge suggested that Palombino create a bourbon-flavored pizza.
"There aren't many people who don't like pizza, and Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon," Palombino said. "So, to me, it sounded like a winning combination and something that I had never heard of being done before."
Palombino took a gallon of his restaurant's barbecue sauce and mixed in some Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon. That sauce, combined with toppings already on hand in the restaurant, served as the basis for Tony Boombozz' newest gourmet pizza. The Kentucky Bourbon Pizza features the barbecue sauce mixture in place of pizza sauce, along with hickory-grilled chicken, smoky bacon, Roma tomatoes and red onions.
Palombino's creation will be featured as the â€˜Anniversary Pizza' during Tony Boombozz' 10th anniversary celebration in October.
"This is an example of what I call â€˜crossover' in terms of using the ingredients you already have, being as creative as possible and trying to make as many dishes or pizzas with those," Palombino said. "Bringing in the bourbon wasn't a big deal. The other ingredients were items we already had in the stores."
Brett Corrieri, corporate chef at MAFIAoZA's in Nashville, Tenn., uses the term "cross-utilization' to describe getting the most mileage out of the ingredients in the cooler.
Cross-utilization allows a restaurant operator to have a huge menu with just a few core items, he said.
"We try to avoid adding any new products to our inventory unless we can use them three or four different ways," Corrieri said. "It doesn't make sense to take up limited shelf space, especially with a perishable item. If you use it in three or four menu items you will use it a lot faster, without the waste."
As an example of cross-utilization, Corrieri cites a pizza he developed in recognition of football season, a time when Buffalo wings are big sellers.
"One of our most popular items for kids is chicken tenders, so we decided to take the mild wing sauce and put it on a pizza in place of the regular sauce," he said. "We topped it with the diced chicken we have on hand for a lot of other dishes, added some mozzarella and blue cheese crumbles on it, baked it and called it the Buffalo Pizza."
The pizza has since become one of the restaurant's top-selling dishes, he said.
"We created a new signature menu item and didn't add any new inventory items to do it," he said.
Finding the marketing benefit
At Atlanta-based Stevi B's Pizza, the company has turned the creation of new menu items into a special event for customers. The company, which operates 26 franchised and five company-owned locations in six states, features "Smash or Trash" Saturdays, where customers vote on whether new menu creations are a hit or a miss.
About 90 percent of the restaurant's new menu items are created by using existing menu items in a new way.
"Adding a new product to the mix is challenging, especially from a sourcing standpoint," said Stevi B's president Jordan Krolick. "Sometimes it's about repackaging what you already know, and this is a way for people to talk more about the food."
Rearranging ingredients can also be a way to soften the impact of rising commodity costs, Krolick said. One example is chicken, the cost of which has risen dramatically over the past year.
The price of ham, on the other hand, has remained fairly stable. In order to continue serving pizzas topped with chicken without them being a money-loser, the company simply replaced some of the chicken with lower-cost ham.
"What we do to create some of those products is to take our more expensive items, use them less as toppings, and take more profitable items and use them more, and in the process create something the customers are going to love," Krolick said. "That was the genesis of our Chicken Cordon Blue pizza."