Staying on Message
Crystallizing a brand’s narrative is key, of course. But it doesn’t preclude changing up the menu or pushing the envelope. What a brand is today doesn’t prohibit building a new pathway to tomorrow. Having a strategy in play is crucial in defining and broadening a brand’s vision. “Start with what the brand is about and where can it go. Where is the line?” asks Nielsen. “What is your appetite for innovation? Communicate it in the context of your brand to help your guests figure out what it is and decide if it’s for them. If you put gochujang on the menu without context, you won’t get credit for it.”
Village Tavern has been serving up casual American pub fare for more than 30 years. Headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C., this 10-unit concept touts both value and scratch cooking. Mary Grace Viado, corporate executive chef, recognizes the need to innovate to attract younger guests—all while managing SKUs and keeping longtime guests happy. The brand used to appeal primarily to Boomers. Like many restaurant concepts, Village Tavern went after the Millennial diner. The menu started evolving 10 years ago, and now they’re capturing that key demographic. In 2015, Village Tavern changed its tagline from “steaks, seafood, burgers and pizzas” to “scratch kitchen and craft bar.” With that shift in marketing message, Viado has tried to align the menu to reflect that more modern sensibility. She tracks flavor trends and wants to embrace as many as she can. But the realities of running an efficient professional kitchen, as well as catering to loyal guests who bring with them expectations, slow down that adaptation. “You shouldn’t stop innovating because you’re afraid to lose guests,” says Viado. “You can’t be afraid to pull menu items to make way for new flavors and new dishes, but you can’t jump on every trend. You have to stay true to your promise.” That’s a precarious balance that requires a deft menu strategy.
A recent menu rollout showcases how she does it. Viado added the Asian Glazed Shrimp Noodle Salad, currently only offered at the Charlotte, N.C., location. To make way for it, she took off the Caprese salad, which wasn’t performing all that well. The new salad, with soba noodles, mixed cabbages, peppers, snow peas, carrots, onions, peanuts and cilantro, is doing exceptionally well—now.
She actually tried to put the salad on the menu back in 2007, but it didn’t sell. “We tweaked it a little and tried again. The strategy is about test, test, test. It’s ongoing R&D, testing the waters, adding trending flavors, trying again,” she says. With this salad, she also energized her kitchen staff. Presentation on the noodles requires precision tongs, a new technique for her team. “It’s how you get them excited and keep them engaged in the brand,” says Viado. New kitchen techniques—even as straightforward as mastering the twirl of noodles with tongs—help keep kitchen staff engaged.
A large part of her strategy sees replacing stale items with more interesting dishes that have more technique behind them. “It’s not just about a flavor trend,” she says. “It’s about a premium experience through higher-level dishes. Millennials have higher expectations and want bolder flavor combinations.” For instance, she recently added a smoked salmon appetizer, starring a filet of salmon smoked in-house and topped with a rum glaze.
Brand integrity dictates the boundaries of the innovation playground. “Not every trend or flavor is right for every concept,” says Rob Corliss, executive chef at fast-casual Sheridan’s Unforked in Overland Park, Kan., and founder of the consulting firm All Things Epicurean. “If Sriracha isn’t right for your brand, pull out and look at the overarching heat trend. What’s the way in that makes sense for your concept? Know your customer and that will help shape your direction. Don’t be reactionary. Instead, formulate a culinary strategy.”
Jamie Carawan is VP of food and beverage innovation for Twin Peaks, part of the Front Burner restaurant group, headquartered in Dallas. Twin Peaks is a gastro lodge, and he says the vision for the brand is to offer up more inventive fare than found at a typical sports bar. Part of his strategy when joining the company just over two years ago was to improve its core menu items, like chicken wings. The restaurant focused on customizable options, expanding to nine sauces and two new dry rubs. “We want to push the boundaries of what people expect, but we also want to stay in our lane,” he says. “You can’t be all things to all people—especially when you’re trying to manage how many menu items and SKUs you have.” He says that Twin Peaks benchmarks itself against Yard House, an upscale sports bar that touts “great food” and “classic rock” in its tagline. “I want their guests to come to me. That’s who we’re after.”