Freedom of choice

Dec. 7, 2005

If you wonder whether menu diversity is important to customers, visit a casual-dining restaurant. Menus at chains like TGI Friday's or Bennigan's Grill & Tavern are as lengthy and descriptive as a Russian novel because customers demand an almost dizzying array of options.

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But the "Have it your way" notion popularized by Burger King is taken a step further at a growing number of chains that encourage guest customization of dishes. Diners at Macaroni Grill can make their own pasta dish by choosing the noodle, the sauce, veggies and meats. At Red Robin's Web site, customers choose from an extended list of gourmet burgers and then choose garnishes, special sauces, cheeses and a particular bread — and then print out that Web page to submit when they order.

Liz Hertz, marketing manager for toppings manufacturer Burke Corp., dubbed this get-what-you-want trend "mass customization."

"Consumers are more demanding than ever and have higher expectations for customization wherever they go," said Hertz, whose company is in Nevada, Iowa. "The restaurant industry as a whole is responding to this."

But isn't freedom of choice old stuff for pizzerias?

Yes, Hertz said, but the industry might not be exploiting this potential marketing opportunity. It's one thing to upsell a customer on extra cheese, but it's another to offer shredded Asiago or cheddar.

"Pizzerias can capitalize on that by training their staffs to be really choice-oriented," said Hertz. "If they aren't already offering different kinds of crust, could they do that? What about different sauces and cheeses?"

The Pizza Shuttle in Milwaukee takes customization to an extreme, and that has made it one of America's busiest pizzerias. Pizza options alone include five crusts, five cheeses, 12 meats, 19 veggies and 13 specialty pies. The rest of the menu lists calzones, sub sandwiches, pasta, appetizers and extensive frozen dessert offerings.

"We wouldn't be in business without our menu being as broad as it is," said co-owner Mark Gold, who expects Pizza Shuttle to gross $5 million in sales for 2005. "We learned that you keep on adding what people want, and the more choices you give, the more business you get."

Gold said he adds new items only after customers request them or he spots a particular trend. If it seems feasible to put it on the menu, he looks to cross-utilize every new ingredient needed for the new item in other spots on the menu.

If new additions don't boost business, Gold dumps them.

"You have to learn to chop off the bottom 10 to 15 percent of your menu every six months to get rid of the things that don't make you any money," he said.

And where does he get most of his new ideas?

"When we hear somebody's got the best of something, we go there and see what makes theirs the best," Gold said. "But when you add something that somebody else has, you have to do it as well as or better than them. Don't ever do something less than the competition."

Topics: Operations Management , Pizza Toppings

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