When commodity boards and operators team up on promotions, diners get a chance to try new dishes like this coconut-red curry roasted Alaska snow crab. Photo courtesy of alaska seafood marketing institute. Commodity boards and chain restaurants can have a win-win relationship — and improve menu offerings along the way
By Karen Weisberg
A commodity board can be a chain restaurant’s best ally. Each has a vested interest in promotions that will increase customer usage of a particular product, bringing increased dollars to the bottom line. Boards want to build brand awareness for their commodity, while restaurants hope that a branded use of a particular commodity will connote high-quality product, adding caché to the menu.
To gain insights into what goes into successful partnerships, we spoke with representatives of five boards and their clients. Their stories take us through the process, step by step, and reveal the winning results.
BUILDING A BETTER BRISKET
Sometimes chain operators request certain promotions, while other times a commodity board’s marketing team initiates the relationship. “Most often, the operator already has a beef menu item or items in mind before they contact us,” says Penny Nau, senior director of promotions for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), contractor for the Beef Checkoff Program.
In some instances, the NCBA offers culinary ideation or other assistance during the initial R&D phase, but the operator may reach out for support after their new item is fully developed and tested. “They’re simply looking for promotional support [that is, marketing dollars] to help launch it,” Nau explains.
Through Beef Checkoff-funded foodservice outreach programs, NCBA introduces new cuts or techniques in the hopes that down the road, operators will incorporate them on the menu. Each commodity board has its own specific agenda, and Nau is quite clear in stating NCBA’s: “Ultimately, our intent is to leverage promotional partnerships to highlight beef’s brand attributes and address important Checkoff priorities,” she says. “For example, we’ll target opportunities that focus on beef as an easy choice for a healthy lifestyle, highlight beef as an affordable menu option or demonstrate beef’s value in a foodservice application.”
The dedicated NCBA team works side-by-side with the operator to introduce promotions and new menu items that work within a particular concept.
Walter “Smokey” Waters serves as corporate chef for Taco Cabana, the rapidly growing San Antonio, Texas-based fast-casual concept with about 160 locations. Continually aiming for authenticity, Waters knew he had developed a good menu item with his Shredded Brisket Taco. He tested it in-store last year, then ran it as an LTO for about six weeks. He then shelved it, planning to bring it back with the next menu change, six months later.
In the interim, he began talking with the Beef Checkoff team. Joe Brink, who had previously worked with Beef Checkoff on promotions, had joined Taco Cabana’s purchasing department and put the culinary team in touch with their local office in Austin.
In short order, Taco Cabana re-shot its point-of-purchase (POP) materials and added the Beef Checkoff symbol, which was placed in adherence to board guidelines. “A promotion seems to carry more weight with a group like that behind you,” Waters contends. “It was a step in the right direction for us to show we’re working with quality product; plus, they gave us a little bit of change to help run the promotion.”
On the culinary side, Waters tweaked the Rich’s smoked brisket he’d been working with in order to better suit his customers’ tastes. “As good as the product has been for us, it’s now on the permanent menu — and has been for about seven months. It probably accounts for a steady 5 percent of sales,” he says.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
Shari’s Restaurants — a 24-hour family dining chain with 102 locations throughout the Northwest — is the largest privately held restaurant chain in Oregon. Food revenues are reported in excess of $175 million, and Kevin Bechtel, senior vice president of purchasing and menu development for the Beaverton, Ore.-based company, knows full well that the culinary aspect is the “basis of everything.”
As a trained chef, Bechtel has thoroughly enjoyed creating various iterations of a seasonal blackberry promotion for several years, as part of Shari’s Northwest-focused flavor theme. “This year, I came up with this crazy idea to do blackberry barbecue sauce, and Bart [Bart Goldberg, a chef as well as menu strategy consultant for the National Pork Board (NPB)] told me the Pork Board would love to support us on any promotion.”
Goldberg and Bechtel have had a long-standing working relationship. “He shows me a variety of pork items or gives recommendations of pork menu items,” says Bechtel. “In this case, I came up with the items.”
The fresh blackberry promotion ran from July 1 through Labor Day and included four menu items: Crispy Pork Blackberry BBQ Salad, Blackberry BBQ Baby Back Ribs, Blackberry BBQ Pulled-Pork Sliders (Bechtel’s riff on a pulled-pork eggs Benedict item that Goldberg had suggested in an earlier brainstorming session) and a $50 “Picnic Basket,” complete with five pounds of barbecued ribs, eight ounces of Blackberry BBQ sauce, sides, cornbread, pie, plates and utensils. The NPB logo is prominently displayed on the menu, on all promotion materials, as well as on a laminated menu outsert.
Goldberg’s mission — to work with clients on the marketing and/or R&D side to increase menu usage of pork and pork products — was quite straightforward in his work with Shari’s. “Back in January, Kevin said he was considering a barbecue promo and I planted the seed that NPB would like to support him,” Goldberg explains. “We went back and forth with ideas. Kevin laid out what his LTO menu was going to be, which items featured pork and how it would be marketed.”
Goldberg then brought a request for promotional support to Stephen Gerike, NPB’s director of foodservice marketing.
“Many times Stephen gives me two different numbers [for promotional support]: one if you use the NPB logo, and another without the logo,” Goldberg explains. This proposal is presented to Shari’s, and all paperwork gets approved by the client for the amount of agreed-upon funds.
Just prior to the end of the LTO, Goldberg requests from Shari’s the figures indicating how much pork was used during the promotion. “They provide proof through tracking and invoice numbers, then a check from NPB gets cut,” he says. The program was a success for both Shari’s and NPB, and Bechtel looks forward to future collaborations.
SUCCESS IN BUNCHES
The California Table Grape Commission’s (CTGC) outreach to chefs and menu developers is ongoing. As an example, Courtney Romano, the commission’s foodservice consultant, cites the board’s successful partnership with Eat ’n Park, a family dining chain with more than 70 units across Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The commission contacted John Frick, Eat ’n Park’s executive chef of menu development, to discuss potential opportunities for grapes on the menu. Frick was in the midst of concepting and development for both core menu items and summer/fall LTO options, with an emphasis on healthy offerings. Following initial discussions, and taking the specific needs of the chain into consideration, the commission developed and presented a number of menu concepts for Frick’s consideration, including menu items featuring grapes as an ingredient, as well as fresh grapes as a healthy side and kids’ menu item.
“Ultimately, Frick and his team created a crisp, seasonal fall salad that included grapes as an ingredient,” says Romano. Eat ’n Park menued this new entrée salad of mixed greens, grilled chicken breast, fresh pears and fresh grapes, crumbled blue cheese, tomatoes and candied pecans last fall. Additionally, grapes were featured as a core offering on Eat ’n Park’s children’s menu.
“The chicken salad with pears and grapes was a very successful item for us,” says Frick. “I would look for this seasonal salad to return, possibly next year.”
On the children’s menu, fresh grapes continue to be a hit, earning them a highly visible spot on the redesigned menu. “While we often had grapes available on the salad bar in the past, we didn’t make them a big feature on our children’s menu until last fall,” says Frick. “They are now a core menu item, and the revised children’s menu has been very popular.” Grapes are now featured in photos throughout the children’s menus — as a side to pancakes, waffles, sandwiches and burgers, on the salad bar and as a side item — which Frick notes has been well-received by both parents and kids.
“We appreciate the relationship that we have with commodity boards like the California Table Grape Commission,” he says. “It’s always helpful to gain insights and ideas from the folks who know the products best and can share best practices for their use.”
A WAY WITH CURDS
For almost a decade, A&W Restaurants has had a cheese curd product on the menu, but it had been several years since it was promoted. Since it boasts 100 percent Wisconsin white cheddar, the team at A&W headquarters in Lexington, Ky., firmly believes its “Curiously Delicious” product is better than any produced by its competitors.
“This year, as a core value promotion, we dedicated ourselves to blanket the stores [approximately 800 franchised units across the country] with POP materials,” says Sarah Blasi, A&W’s marketing manager. “We focused on insight that this product is 100 percent real fun and that people can pop ’em, dip ’em, stretch ’em — however they want to eat them.”
As part of an ongoing relationship with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), Blasi gave Allen Hendricks, director of national accounts for foodservice, the heads-up almost a year in advance.
“We tell him exactly what we have in mind: that A&W is going to devote 100 percent of the menu real estate to Cheese Curds,” she says. “We tell him how many eyeballs we think will be on this and how we’re planning to promote this. We’re very specific as far as the number of POP items, social media, local television, direct mail, plus print.”
According to Hendricks — who quickly came back to A&W with the amount of marketing funding WMMB would provide — it was indeed a very successful promotion.
“Everyone tends to go to market a bit differently, but in a general sense, we try to work with the account’s plan,” he notes. “This program did increase sales during the marketing period — an LTO from mid-February through mid-April, partially targeting Lent — and put Cheese Curds at the top of the consumer’s mind. The volume of this item continues to grow.”
Indeed, A&W’s sales of Cheese Curds increased 40 percent during the promotional period, Blasi happily reports. “It’s definitely possible we’ll do something similar with a new angle next year,” she says. Hendricks and the WMMB team stand ready to offer recipe development, market research, trend information, plus the WMMB logo for strategic positioning on POP materials, in addition to marketing assistance.
RICHES OF THE SEA
Jann Dickerson, responsible for developing partnerships with national chain accounts for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), has worked with a plethora of chefs on innumerable accounts. Dickerson pulls no punches in detailing ASMI’s goal: “Our objective in developing partnerships is to get the ASMI logo in front of more people and thus build our brand,” she says. “So the amount of money we provide for the chain depends upon the number of promotional vehicles and the reach [i.e., the amount of visibility] while increasing the number of species of Alaska seafood on the menu and in sales.”
One example of a successful partnership is that with Market Broiler — a casual, moderately priced full-service restaurant with six locations in the San Diego area and headquarters in Riverside, Calif.
“We’ve had a relationship with Market Broiler for over ten years and have sent them a number of recipes and ideas,” Dickerson says. Since Market Broiler has an abiding commitment to sustainability, it appreciates the fact that Alaska seafood is all wild and sustainable and has been so since 1959, she explains. To reinforce the point, Lenore Vlasic, the chain’s chief marketing officer, clarifies: “We are trending Market Broiler towards sustainable seafood. In fact, we now have 20-plus sustainable seafood items on our menu,” she says. “We provide information about sustainability for our guests. And, we maximize seasonality usually starting in the spring with Alaska halibut and ending with Alaska crab.”
Vlasic expands about the marketing vehicles: “We are reaching outside our walls to find what media works with our customers,” she says. The concept currently uses digital highway billboards and TV commercials incorporating fishing footage and photography supplied by ASMI, plus social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook. “It’s a layering effect,” says Vlasic. “We even produce parking-lot banners, and our servers wear ASMI-supplied buttons.”
Once the promotions have finished their run, Vlasic provides ASMI with a sales breakdown. “This way we can look year-to-year, seeing if, combined with spinach, for example, it didn’t do as well as with a snow crab topping,” she says. “Such data helps determine next year’s success.”
Clearly, commodity boards and chain restaurants alike do find success when they take advantage of each others’ strengths.
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