Menu product development takes patience, collaboration

Just because you see a competitor introduce something currently in your pipeline, doesn't mean you should rush to get it out on the market as well. In fact, product development requires patience and collaboration in order to produce traffic-driving menu items.

"Even though you see something out in the market, that doesn't mean it's working. Stick to your guns," said Stan Dorsey, vice president of R&D at The Krystal Co.

This was just one of the lessons conveyed in a "product development for restaurant menus" panel at the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.

The panel also included Kit Kiefer, corporate executive chef and president of the Research Chef's Association; Scott Randoph, co-founder, FDR Inc.; Amy Alarcon, vice president of Culinary Innovation, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen; and Erin Ryan, corporate research chef, Z-Trim Holdings. They discussed the most effective steps in developing a new menu item, the creative process behind that development and how to engage marketing.

The most effective ways to develop a new menu item

Popeyes features an active limited-time rollout calendar — the company typically has 12 promotions a year and 80 percent of the time, they're LTOs. Because of this pace, Alarcon said the product development process has to be strong.

"It's not linear, it's collaborative and continuous," she said.

The process starts with a strategy pitched by the marketing department based on what needs have to be filled. It is followed by ideation in which, according to Alarcon, "everyone has a say." The company then engages suppliers and nails down the product attributes.

"We then talk to consumers at least three different times before rollout. We ask them if they like the idea, host a taste panel, ask them if they'd buy it, etc.," she said. "You have to talk to consumers."

Krystal's product development process typically entails seven steps, according to Dorsey:

  1. Come up with an idea, use customers, franchisees, management;
  2. Develop a rough prototype, one that passes the "brand filter." (Krystal's brand filter, for example, includes products that are small, unique, craveable, quality, portable, indulgent and with value and Southern appeal, Dorsey said);
  3. Create a prototype, a commercialized bench sample;
  4. Refine the prototype; incorporate feedback from the leadership team;
  5. Roll out a testable prototype, gauge consumer feedback;
  6. Conduct an operations test for the new product; marketing helps push the product;
  7. Bring the refined test prototype to market, support with marketing and solicit consumer feedback.

Of all these steps, consumer insight is perhaps the most critical. Randolph suggests soliciting consumer feedback at the start (will they buy this), during the testing and when the product rolls out.

"Have all the answers answered before you even start the product," he said.

Communication with your vendor/manufacturing partners is also key.

"Can the manufacturer even do it? Is it in your cost range? Does it have the nutritionals that fit your guidelines? You have to source ingredients that fit the essence of your brand," Ryan added. That includes newer trends such as gluten-free, non-GMO, "clean" labels (or minimum ingredients), etc.

Developing a creative for the product

Also of importance is the incorporation of marketing — a message to sell the product. So significant is this step that Popeyes' and Krystal's product development/R&D teams are actually part of the marketing departments.

Alarcon said Popeyes even uses its agency to help drive new products and create food tours as a stimulus for driving ideas that are ready for consumer research validation.

"You can create the best food in the world, but without the marketing behind it, the food sits on the bench," Randoph added.

Take your time

And, though there is cut-throat competition in the restaurant space to come up with the next big thing, the panel reiterated the importance of sticking to the process.

Alarcon said that means continuous concept testing going on in two to three different categories at one time — from LTOs to beverages and sauces.

"Everything I'm working on now will get tested next year. The goal is to race to market test, not to market rollout," she said. "The biggest problems happen when you skip a step. Our franchisees rely on us to execute products with a lot of discipline. I work for them."

Photo provided by deviantart

Read more about food and beverage rollouts.

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