Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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A Place on the Menu

The winner in Applebee’s state-wide competition to create the perfect Colorado Burger was a beef patty topped with cheddar-Jack cheese and veggies, then wrapped in a flour tortilla and fried. Photo courtesy of applebee’s. For national chains, catering to regional tastes across the country can be a tough but rewarding job

By Monica Kass Rogers

America’s interest in regional cuisines is burgeoning, and catering to all these different tastes presents a special challenge to operators at national chains. Customizing menus to match locality is particularly difficult since a chain’s product quality needs to be the same in San Antonio as it is in Santa Monica.

To succeed, supply-chain, consumer demand and consistency challenges must all be factored in, notes John Dillon, vice president of marketing and product development for the 1,650-unit Denny’s. Rather than tailor menus to specific, regional tastes at this juncture, Denny’s chose to kick off a national “Tour of America” LTO in June featuring regional American dishes coast to coast. Dillon says this strategy responds to guests’ expanded interest in regional American foods while also easing Americans’ stalled wanderlust. “For economic reasons, a lot of Americans are doing ‘staycations’ and can’t travel. This brings the food of different regions right to them,” says Dillon.

Thus far, the promotion has done “very, very well, exceeding expectations,” he reports. “Regional American is a theme that resonates with a lot of people.”

Featured dishes represent Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Hawaiian, West Coast and Southern favorites. Best sellers include two new Denny’s beverages: a Hawaiian Tropical Smoothie with pineapple, coconut and nonfat yogurt and a Pacific Northwest Iced Coffee (Denny’s first iced coffee offering, made with Arabica and Sumatra coffee beans). Dillon says Denny’s will continue to explore regional menus and satisfy regional taste differences outside an LTO. “We’re in development of a further plan for that now,” he concludes.

At Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill, “regional preferences are absolutely important to us,” says Shannon Johnson, executive director of culinary innovation and development. “Neighborhood is, after all, in the name of our concept, and we want to deliver on that.”

To do so, Applebee’s gives operators some regional flexibility with their menus, allowing them to compete head to head with restaurants that serve local specialties. “Our core menu is staple, but there are some regional items that are ‘must haves’ for the Applebee’s in that area to compete — a specific clam chowder formulated for the Northeast, for example, or chicken-fried steak in Texas. It’s all dependent on the food culture of a region. You could be in one where there are no regionally specific items, while in another, as much as 10 to 15 percent of the menu is regionally skewed,” notes Johnson.

Denny’s customers can start their day with a taste of the tropics in Hawaii-inspired macadamia pancakes with grilled pineapple and toasted coconut sprinkles. DISCERNING TASTEBUDS
Usually what it comes down to, says Johnson, “are subtle nuances in flavor and texture. Not massive changes — things that may seem subtle on the surface but are crucial to the discerning tastebuds of specific guest groups.” Clam chowder is one example. “If you were to put our regular clam chowder next to the clam chowder formulated for the Northeast, you might not notice the difference, but the New England guest would be able to tell.”

What’s most challenging and important, he says, is nailing down guest preferences from one part of the country to the next. “If you don’t nail it — come up with a best of class with any regional dish — then whatever you do comes off as half-hearted.”

To add to the challenge, not every part of the country has the same ingredient source or availability, says Johnson, and, not all things that make sense regionally make sense from a seasonality standpoint: “People want these things on the menu all of the time, but that’s not always possible.”

While most regional-preference recipes are developed by Applebee’s core culinary team of seven chefs, input from unit cooks also can lead to menu items. Recently, the chain challenged restaurant teams throughout Colorado to create the perfect “Colorado Burger.” The winning Chimichanga Burger entry, created by the team in Grand Junction, Colo., was selected by a panel of local celebrities from five finalist burgers. Now known as the “Colorado Burger,” it features Jack-cheddar cheese and roasted veggies wrapped in a tortilla and fried, then topped with “Stinkin’ Good Green Chile,” sour cream and pico de gallo.

To build excitement, throughout July, Coloradans were able to sample the five burger finalists.

The chain concept currently leading the region-specific recipe charge is Smashburger. Each of Smashburger’s regional markets in 35 states gets its own burger. Some also get regional-taste-tailored chicken sandwiches,  salads, floats, milk shakes and side dishes.

“There’s something magical about giving people in each and every market food that caters to what they love,” says Tom Ryan, founder of the 115-unit chain.  That translates to the Tailgater Bratwurst sandwich, exclusive to Minneapolis; the fried green chiles in Colorado; fried banana peppers in the Ohio River basin (Kentucky and Ohio); and the Gooey Butter Cake milk shakes in St. Louis.

In markets like Michigan, state-flavor loyalty runs especially deep. Two Michigan burger specials — the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar burger with Michigan-cherry barbecue sauce, and the Olive burger (a favorite in western and lower Michigan) “account for over 25 percent of the burgers we sell in Michigan,” says Ryan.

To tap into regional tastes, Smashburger studies state- and city-wide tastes, canvasses vendors and distribution networks for popular ingredients and talks to franchise partners in the various regions, asking them to contribute ideas about thematics or ingredients. While not all state stores are in Michigan’s 25 percent sales range, “our regionalized strategy has been very successful,” says Ryan. “There’s no down side. It give our brand energy, our partners really enjoy getting involved, and what we are doing resonates with our guests.”


About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.