How to get your customers to avoid menu boredom

By Emily Tod, FoodIQ

The right to choose has made its way into the foodservice industry, as customers take over the reigns and make up their own meals. The everyday Joe puts on his chef hat as he approaches a counter to create an offering just the way he likes it. With endless possibilities, are customers really taking advantage of this freedom? Or are they such creatures of habit that they keep missing out on the most amazing burrito or burger they've ever tasted?

As we allow the customer to make it their way, we lose the opportunity to introduce them to something new. And, perhaps more importantly, memorable. Giving them full control of the order puts them in a position to default to the familiar. If a guest orders their "usual" every time they walk through the door, they may miss out on truly experiencing the flavor and cuisine on which the restaurant was founded. They may also eventually get bored and visit less frequently.

Perhaps operators need to give customers a little push in the right direction — or maybe just a different direction. Naturally, some operations must stay true to their customizable concept, but it's time to take the consumer out of their comfort zone. So how do we lead them into taking the leap?

Feature combinations. Creating a limited-time offer, daily special, or menu item of the month is ever-popular throughout restaurant segments. Everyday ingredients can be used to create a unique featured item patrons may recreate in the future. Alternatively, these items might simply give guests a place to start.

Subway, for example, is always featuring multiple menu items. Whether these are everyday items or special limited time offers, putting them on the menu gives patrons a discernible starting point. Without a large poster depicting melted Monterrey cheddar cheese and crisp veggies on top of fresh chicken and bacon, the customer might just stick with their typical turkey, lettuce and tomato. Other concepts can easily take this idea and make it their own, applying it to main dishes from pizza to burritos to bowls.

Educate employees. The typical limited-service employee doesn't have much classic culinary training. In order for employees to gain true understanding, they should taste all menu offerings and learn how to talk to customers about flavors and ingredients.

The Sales & Marketing Team at Vanee Foods Company suggests monthly meetings. "You have to teach [employees] and keep them familiar with any changes or additions to the menu. One way to do this is by having mandatory monthly menu tastings...they'll not only be able to offer honest personal recommendations, but they'll have a general sense of what everything on the menu looks like, tastes like, and what it's made out of." This encourages greater interaction with the customer and prepares the employee for questions. The more knowledgeable an employee is, the more likely a customer will take their recommendations on an order.

Give them a clue. Chances are, the average customer's knowledge of flavor pairings is minimal. And who better to know the best combinations at a chain or independent operation than the chefs? A simple "suggestions" section on the menu board, poster, or handout could inspire a customer to try something new. Show them the simple equation of flavors and ingredients that go well together.

The fast-growing sandwich chain, Which Wich, is already doing this. While guests can create their own sandwich, Which Wich uses in-store communication to suggest flavorful combinations such as buffalo chicken and avocado. Qdoba offers seasonal suggestions. Currently, it recommends its basic salad topped with seasonal mango salsa and cilantro lime dressing. If a customer takes the advice, these small recommendations can mean the difference between an OK experience and one that wows.

Pushing guests to experience the full extent of the menu is critical to long-term success. Restaurants are no longer competing against others of their own kind. They're competing against every single foodservice operation from gas station roller grills to casual dine locations.

When a customer orders the same meal every time they step into a restaurant, the risk of boredom, and finding another place to eat, runs high. Suggest a few flavorful combinations, and the chance of obtaining repeat business grows exponentially. Because when they're returning not because of the familiar and comfortable, rather because they can experience something new and exciting with each visit, the result is a happier, more loyal customer — and a little larger slice of the market share.

Emily Tod is the Insights Project Coordinator at FoodIQ.

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