Blaze, Beefsteak, McAlister's chefs on the 3 legs that support great menu innovation

| by Elliot Maras
Blaze, Beefsteak, McAlister's chefs on the 3 legs that support great menu innovation

The world for chefs at pizza brands typically must fit the confines of a circular, crusted pie, but within those confines, there's plenty of room for creativity as we witness everyday in the multitude of pizza brands and their creations out there, all screaming to be new and different. And the chefs behind all those brands would likely have all loved the hour-long chef-centered discussion on innovating new and popular menu items at last month's Fast Casual Executive Summit in Nashville.

Represented on the three-person panel were Blaze Pizza Executive Chef Brad Kent, Beefsteak Executive Chef Pat Peterson and McAlister's Deli Corporate Executive Chef William Eudy, while Simmons Foods Director of Insights and Innovation Jason Herron moderated the discussion.

Right off the bat the group concurred that although their quest for menu innovation and inspiration is often personal, always ongoing and inclusive of other restaurant employees' ideas, they still believed each successful addition to their brands' menus had to be balanced against the needs of the organizations they serve.

That's why you just might compare the best kinds of menu items as being those supported by something like a three-legged stool. To really "make it" with any blend of consumers, a good menu innovation must have one leg devoted to culinary concerns, another focused on the organization's financial needs and a third based on logistics input. Only when those three legs of support are represented does a menu or menu items stand a chance of being successful.

Organizational balance needed

Pat Peterson, executive chef at Beefsteak, a vegetable-centric fast casual restaurant, recounted an experience in which this balance wasn't achieved. The restaurant wanted to introduce fresh ingredients, but in this particular instance, marketing drove the menu and sidestepped culinary input. Hence, Peterson observed that the guests were not enjoying the food.

Beefsteak's parent company, Think Food Group, features executive chef Jose Andres, who is known for avant-garde cuisine in his restaurants and a food truck.

"True innovation requires guest feedback," Peterson said. If the innovation only gets operations feedback, the menu item will be operationally driven. What was missing in the above example was the need to create a depth of flavor."

He said Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream accomplished this with its kaleidoscope of flavors. William Eudy, corporate executive chef at McAlister's Deli, referred to it as creating "craveable flavors."

What inspires?

So how do chefs get inspired? Peterson and Eudy agreed they get inspiration from daily living.

"Inspiration comes from your entire living experience," Eudy said.

Peterson added, "I'm very disciplined to spend time on R&D every day." 

As simple as these ideas sound, the process of taking an idea to a menu item is anything but, especially for large organizations. Menu development can be complex. Brad Kent, executive chef at Blaze Pizza, said he has to convince company management to try new menu ideas, which can take a few weeks.

Eudy said his new ideas have to be screened and tested, which is a multi-step process. He said 12 ideas a month get screened by 2,000 guests. New ideas are also presented to focus groups. The entire process usually takes 18 months.

Peterson said the process takes less time for a smaller organization. He talks to customers daily for feedback on menu ideas. In coming up with new ideas, he considers his customer profiles and his budget.Out of 100 new ideas, only five will be monetized, Peterson said.

What motivates a chef and how can leaders help?

Asked what each chef loves most about working in the fast casual segment, Kent said he likes providing nutrition to hundreds of thousands of people a week. Then, asked what advice they have for executives at their company, Eudy said executives need to be open with their culinary team and must listen to guests. Peterson said executives need to foster a collaborative environment.

Chefs, for their part, have to expect that their ideas will have to be reviewed by the purchasing, operations and training departments, since all are partners. But then, during the question-and-answer session, one audience member asked what a restaurant should do if they can't afford a professional chef. Eudy pointed out that many foodservice distributors that restaurants buy heir food from actually also have chefs.

Peterson said foodservice distributor chefs will conceptualize menu items, but it is up to the individual restaurant to know how to make it commercially viable. Peterson also suggested foodservice establishments work with consultants on menu innovation. He suggested selecting two or three consultants and have them bid for your business.

The session demonstrated there is no single path to successful menu development, but a successful menu is always a collaborative effort.

Registration is now open for the2018 Fast Casual Executive Summit in Seattle

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage, Food Cost Management

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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