Wayne Bennington of Oklahoma City was traveling on business in the Midwest when he stopped at a popular regional restaurant for breakfast. In a good mood after a successful week, he ordered a full stack of pancakes topped with a substantial serving of whipped cream, chocolate chips, chocolate syrup, nuts and berries.
When his waiter served up the sugar-rich dish, Bennington noticed two heads peeking out of the kitchen looking directly at him. “Oh, ignore them,” said the waiter. “They just want to see who’s eating this. No one has ever ordered it before.”
It’s hard to imagine that a restaurant would waste menu space on an entree that no one orders. But according to foodservice professionals, it happens often.
“I see people throw something on the menu and let it languish,” said Larry Jackson, owner of Good to Go Markets and the Bullhead Pit Beef food truck in Columbia, Maryland. “They’ll leave it there for years and sell one or two a day. You can’t put a product out and expect it to take off without pointing attention to it.”
Crafting the ideal menu for your foodservice operation is a job that never ends. Even when everything on the menu is a keeper, you know that eventually demand for some offerings will slide or the latest food trends featured on social media will have customers expecting something new.
“You need a signature item. It’s easy to go from there and add things to your menu,” said Jackson. “If you have a great cheesesteak and people come in for that, you can add a cheeseburger and people might try that for variety. But if you don’t have one thing that grounds your menu, something people will drive out of the way for, it’s harder to experiment on the backside.”
“When we concentrate on making foods simple and wholesome, people respond to that.”
Jackson is well-known for serving up delicious pit beef, Baltimore’s version of barbeque. “Once we get people to trust that our pit beef sandwich is really good, we can put other things on the menu. Then when they want something different, they’re okay trying our pulled pork or tacos,” he said. “But I can’t throw a tuna fish sandwich on the menu. It doesn’t translate.”
At Maverik, the Salt Lake City-based convenience chain with 300-plus stores, new additions to the menu are selected with quality top of mind. “When we make something more wholesome with higher quality ingredients, and customers see a short ingredient list, they understand and like that,” said Kyle Lore, corporate R&D chef at Maverik. “It may not be healthier, but what the customer sees is that it doesn’t have any ingredients they don’t understand. When we concentrate on making foods simple and wholesome, people respond to that.”
But the final test for any item is whether Maverik’s kitchen crews can create a uniform dish and serve it quickly to customers on the go. “We try to make food in as few steps as possible and as simple as possible,” said Lore. “We have to do so in order to consistently produce a product the same way every time. Our made-to-order format is based on four minutes. If an item takes longer than four minutes [to serve], it’s not going to work for us.”
Managing Turnkey Menus
Many convenience stores rely on turnkey food programs to keep hungry customers satisfied. Although turnkey programs limit food offerings, it is not impossible to create a menu tailored to the demands of locals.
The Fastbreak convenience store chain based in Klamath Falls, Oregon, has 23 outlets, with six of them offering the Champs chicken and/or the Cooper’s Express foodservice programs. Both hot-foods programs provide their customers with a set of core items, and then give retailers several other choices, including limited-time offers (LTOs) every two months. The LTOs may utilize ingredients that are part of the existing menu.
“The company provides market analysis of which items are selling well,” said Greg Brown, food and beverage manager at Fastbreak. “But if something similar is available across the street, we would probably not have that product on the menu.”
But even a turnkey program requires regular menu analysis. “There is only so much you can do with the chicken program, but we may change things around because it’s a different season,” he said.
Fastbreak selected turnkey programs for their rural Oregon stores because “it’s a good way to start a foodservice program in-house,” Brown said. “You don’t have to develop recipes, and training is available. Once a quarter, a representative goes to every store to provide more training. The managers get a lot out of it, and it gives us another set of eyes in the store.”
Simple Is Best
Customers of Rutter’s, the York, Pennsylvania-based chain with 69 stores, are open to new food offerings the company introduces, said Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice for Rutter’s.
“We’re trying to grow new items and meet a new consumer demand,” Krebs said. “Our focus now—particularly with millennials and Gen Z—is to be more transparent in our foodservice. So, we’re not removing breakfast sandwiches, but we’re using cage-free eggs. It doesn’t chase away the everyday breakfast customers, but it has a value-add to the new and emerging customer base.”
When considering any new offering for the menu, retailers must think through everything from labor to ingredients. Too much of either one will boost production costs and the final price point.
“Our motto is keep it simple,” said Jackson. “We try to keep down the number of ingredients in the items we sell. If you only have four or five ingredients, it’s pretty easy to say, ‘we don’t have peanuts in anything.’ Even if you don’t have to label [your food offerings], you gain trust with customers because they know there are only a couple of ingredients in there.”
Slovacek’s is the West, Texas, barbeque-restaurant-and-convenience store on a high-traffic highway between Dallas and Austin. Time is money, and new menu items get three weekends to prove their value.
“If it moves good, we’ll keep it,” said Ray Rabroker, general manager. “We’re primarily barbeque so there is not a whole lot of revising that, but if a side becomes less than 5% of sales, that would be one we’d look at removing.”
Committed to quality, Slovacek’s originally tried to make every item on the menu by hand, “but that’s where the cost of labor is,” said Rabroker. “So, we bring in some frozen foods, thaw and serve them. But before we ever pick those items, we have an [in-house] taste test.
“We used to make mac and cheese by hand, boiling noodles and chopping Velveeta,” he recalled. “Then we had a blind taste test with 10 employees, and they picked the premade product over the homemade 7 to 3. Most people don’t know how to make homemade mac and cheese with Velveeta because it takes so long. They’re used to the mac and cheese that comes in the box.”
Even with in-store kitchens and a dedicated kitchen staff, Maverik brings in some prepared foods to save prep time. For example, precooked proteins, such as fried egg patties, are prepared by a third-party vendor, a move that ensures consistency.
“We partner with a lot of third-party people and get proprietary items that they produce only for us,” Lowe said. “We also piggyback on a lot on other restaurant channels outside of traditional convenience. Then we assemble onsite, trying to make it as simple as possible.”
You need a signature item. It’s easy to go from there and add things to your menu.
Everyone in the foodservice business loves what Krebs describes as “no-brainer home runs.” Recently, Rutter’s introduced fried Oreos, which have been a big hit with customers. “Fried Oreos are an indulgent item, a snack item and an impulse item,” he said. “In our market, people eat a ton of fried foods, so those are just easy adds.”
But while adding new offerings is easy, deleting items can be a challenge. “In a perfect world, you say, ‘if I add one thing, I’ll take one off,’ but that doesn’t always work,” said Krebs. “What we do, particularly when adding, is based on my vision of trends—cage-free, clean label—that are broader initiatives, and then if items fit into those broad initiatives, we’ll implement that.”
At Rutter’s, removing any item from the menu is tough since even the least popular offering probably sells well. “We don’t bring in items if we don’t think they’ll be successful, but we have to look at what we consider bottom feeders within a certain category, and say, ‘I can’t bring in fried Oreos if I don’t remove another fried item,’” he said. “You only have so much fryer drawer space and freezer space. You have to decide if the new item is going to outpace the older item you’re going to remove.”
Knowing when to delete an item is based on current and accurate information. Effective item removal comes down to repeatedly collecting and analyzing in-house data, and Rutter’s does a quarterly analysis of the entire menu, removing and adding offerings.
“Is the customer buying it at the rate of other items or not?” Krebs asked. “You may sell 100,000 units of an item out of the fryer, but other items are selling 250,000 or more. Then that [first] item is one you remove, and you have to prepare for the complaints. But you can’t keep every single item for every customer out there.
“When it comes to menus, it’s constant evaluation, data-pulling and trend-watching, and it’s the core of our business,” he said. “It’s what differentiates you from your competition, and these days everyone is your competition.”