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If you're like most operators, you'll be making some changes to your menu in the coming months. According to the Wall Street Journal, Applebee's has revamped about 80 percent of its menu over the past two years, while more than half of T.G.I. Friday's items have been tweaked.

The major chains are in search of new flavors that can attract a more upscale segment of the dining public, the Journal reports. Their challenge is to "foodie up" their offerings without turning off their regular customers – while serving millions and millions across the country every week.

Smaller operations face a similar challenge. How do you keep your menu fresh and interesting while maintaining the signature dishes – and the price point — that built your clientele in the first place?

Here's an idea: Listen to your customers.

We know that diners are in search of fresh tastes even though they are still being careful with their restaurant dollars. Nothing too far outside their comfort zone – for Olive Garden patrons that includes capers, the Journal found – but perhaps old favorites in new or unexpected preparations. Salted caramels or bacon-pecan ice cream, anyone?

Before you dive into the latest craze to bring in new customers, however, be sure you know who is already dining with you. You should know your existing best sellers month-to-month. What you need to find out is what else your patrons would like to eat.

A month-long survey, through a short card presented with the menu, can help you gather this information. Your servers can help boost response by asking about the card throughout the meal, and/or presenting a complimentary beverage to anyone who completes it.

Be sure to direct diners to your website or Facebook page as well. There you could even have them vote on possible new dishes. A special "sneak peek week" introduction of the "finalist" dishes that engages your regulars and your target market in the selection process can yield invaluable feedback.

No matter how you gather it, make sure you listen to that feedback. If people tell you they love everything about a new dish except the capers, lose the capers.

If your regulars are not as enthusiastic about a makeover of an existing dish – lower sodium or using local ingredients, for example -- as the potential patrons, you have to determine if the change is enough to bring new people in. Or will it just make people quit ordering it?

Once you tweak your menu, let diners know and make sure your staff understands how to sell it. If your offerings are more locally sourced, or lighter on the fat, or include a greater range of gluten-free items, train the staff on what the changes mean for diners with special dietary needs.

And if sales of a particular dish drop off after the first three months, go back to the drawing board — and don't be afraid to drop it. But remember, Olive Garden couldn't sell gnocchi until they called it "traditional Italian dumpling."

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Betsy Craig
Betsy Craig brings 20 years of food service industry experience to MenuTrinfo, LLC a menu nutritional labeling Company. Her commitment to the betterment of the food industry and her desire to affect the dining public are the driving forces behind her new company Kitchens with Confidence, LLC.
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