The Long Game
One of the keys to staying relevant and attracting new customers is through a long-term flavor strategy. “Your menu is where you live in the moment,” says Corliss. “A culinary strategy and how you look at flavor trends is how you ensure your future.”
Implementing new ideas can often move slower than the trends cycle, particularly in casual dining. Being strategic about where to focus innovation efforts is a smart way in, says Nielsen. “Have a place on your menu that always changes. Pick a part of the menu that you want to play with that works with your brand. Maybe it’s a rotating line of dips, sandwich condiments or beverages. Or a guacamole or queso section with different flavorings and toppings.” The idea is to find a way to be nimble by building into the system a mechanism for changing out flavors. Your customer will know to look there for more adventurous fare.
That strategy also helps build up your longtime guests’ stamina for innovation. “It’s always about forward thinking while trying to please existing customers,” says Viado. “But you have to get out of the bubble. You can’t stop innovating because you’re afraid that you’ll lose guests. You need the buy-in of your servers and your cooks, and you need to educate your guests.”
Corliss says that a great way to both energize your staff and bring in on-trend flavors is through special menus. “Make it occasion-based, perhaps around a plant-based theme like Earth Day,” he says. “Or choose a brand milestone for a special menu insert.” And tapping into seasonality can be as easy as switching out a tomato on a burger. “At Unforked, we’ll sub in local heirloom tomatoes when they’re in season across menu applications. We don’t create a whole new menu around them, but just add marketing efforts to promote it,” says Corliss.
Consumers today have a seemingly insatiable appetite for what’s next. Implementing savvy flavor strategies can help keep them coming back for more. “To stay competitive, we have to keep trying new dishes, upping the ante,” says Viado. “We have to seek out trends and interpret them for our brand. That’s how we win.”