How to Build a Menu Like a Restaurateur

Before the idea to add a deep-dish pizza to the menu at Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar could pass muster, it had to do more than meet the strategy goals of the culinary and marketing departments.

The supply-chain department offered its assessment as well: The pie would require equipment, an investment significant enough to give the team pause. “That was a consideration—was it worth it to bring in new pans and [table] stands?” says Brad Bevill, vice president of marketing for the family chain. Ultimately, the answer the full group agreed on was yes. “We’ve found this to be very successful when everyone is thinking, ‘How does this affect my department?’ ” Bevill says.

Modern menu ideating requires more consumer research and input from departments that haven’t always been at the development table, according to restaurant operators.

Companies are now writing formal menu strategies based on requirements from culinary, branding, operations, training, supply, information technology, marketing and advertising.

But a thorough approach to menu development doesn’t necessarily slow down the process. On the contrary: By having the right people in the room from the start, operators are able to foresee and address issues earlier and avoid trip-ups down the line. This enables restaurants to update menus more often, and with items more likely to win with consumers that strongly support the brand’s image.

So what can c-stores learn from restaurants’ menu-making evolution?

Boston’s menu had become stagnant, says Tim Matousek, vice president of operations.

“There was not a lot of pride in it,” he says. “A lot of things were being made off-site, coming in with a bag and boiling it.”

Quality improved and profitability escalated when the restaurant started bringing preparation and cooking in-house, Matousek says. For example, baking its own cookies and brownies vs. buying premade desserts helped Boston’s menu strategy team lower food costs by 10 points.

Frequent limited-time offers (LTOs) also helped the menu feel more current, but it ultimately proved not to be a simple fix. “We were in such a hurry to get [an LTO] item, we weren’t thinking about the overall menu,” Bevill says. “Then, when it was time for a new menu, we were like: ‘Whatever happened to those LTOs?’ We had to start thinking of the menu as a whole.”

Creating a formal menu strategy process helped Boston’s move beyond a piecemeal method of menu changes. Bevill and Matousek formed a corporate culinary and menu strategy team, charged with refreshing the menu on a two-year cycle. The team comprises the directors of supply chain, marketing, training and development; the company president; and the executive chef, as well as Bevill and Matousek.

Over the past two years, Buffalo Wings & Rings outlined a formal menu development process of its own, incorporating consumer information and buy-in across departments. Previously, its culinarians were shooting from the hip with menu ideas, says Diane Matheson, director of marketing for the Cincinnati-based chain. Since instituting the new process, Buffalo Wings & Rings has been able to reduce the amount of special ingredients franchisees needed to purchase for items. “I don’t think we could live without the process,” Matheson says. “We’re more efficient now in what we’re bringing into the kitchen, and that’s more success for our franchisees.”

The menu development team for sports bar chain Native Grill & Wings sets a date for a new menu rollout and then works backward, setting deadlines and using a spreadsheet to track progress, says Cynthia Velasco, marketing manager. For example, new breakfast-inspired items such as the hangover burger (topped with bacon, hash browns and a fried egg) that debuted on a fall menu update were in the works for three to four months prior.

The spreadsheet outlines timing for each step, such as time for research and development and consulting with franchisees on pricing, two weeks for menu design, two days for photo shoots, and then updating spec sheets of the new menu to go to the printer.

In addition to representatives from operations, training, marketing, procurement and a franchisee  advisory group, Native Grill’s menu development team also includes someone from the information technology group. That way, the tech team can start making adjustments earlier to the POS system, online ordering, delivery and the restaurant’s mobile app.

Launching the new menu strategy model required a structural shift for 400-unit Boston’s. The culinary and training departments were moved under Matousek, rather than operating autonomously. The shift helped streamline procedures, he says, with both ideas and the reality of how they would perform in a store staying within a single department.

The chain’s strategy team—which supports new dishes by looking at different departments’ contributions—also looks for specific criteria such as brand relevance, food costs, worthiness of word-of-mouth marketing, craveability and sales goals.

Having set goals and a procedure has helped Boston’s menuing process shorten from months to weeks, Bevill says. Operations now reviews the feasibility of a new menu item before the company invests in collecting consumer data on it with focus groups and in-store tests.

Buffalo Wings & Rings has found similar success by bringing in more than the culinary team. “I have several ideas, but what others think is what drives the success,” says its Executive Chef Elliot Jablonsky. “We’re getting better at reducing risk and making better choices.”

As both brands and consumers have evolved, so have established menu development processes. Golden, Colo.-based Good Times Restaurants Inc., parent company of quick-service Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard and casual-dining Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, has made tweaks over time.

“We have a 10-step process we’ve refined over the years with the Good Times brand,” says Nick Biegel, director of product development. It has added more steps to identify holes in the menu and get consumer validation on new items through focus groups and surveys. “We’ve taken those steps and applied them to Bad Daddy’s product development.”

A core group that includes Biegel, CEO Boyd Hoback, Executive Chef Tim Kast, Operations Director Mike Maloney and Marketing Director Amy Nedwell takes a menu project through the 10 steps, from ideation and prototype development to consumer evaluations and location tests. Ideas are put through a filter to assess if they are a good operational fit, a good economic fit and a fit for the brand, Biegel says.

Maloney and his operations team will assess the amount of management and labor that has to be applied to new items, and whether there is space on the line for it. Biegel will evaluate product and supplies needed, and whether the cost is worth it.

“Sometimes we come up with a great idea, but the economics don’t work,” he says. In a social-media-driven era, “Do we have unique products our customers find rave-worthy? It all comes down to: Does it sell?”