Web Exclusive | April 2014 | By Christine Blank

Chef for Hire

Quick serves enlist culinary consultants to boost menu offerings.

Quick service restaurant brands hire chefs to develop new innovative menus.
Peet's Coffee & Tea enlisted chef Arnold Eric Wong to develop its “Fresh Grab & Go” menu, which includes salads and other healthier items. Peet's Coffee & Tea
Bookmark/Share this post with:
Email this story Email this story
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

In an attempt to elevate their menu offerings, some quick-serve chains are teaming with professional chefs to revamp and upscale their food and beverage products.

Atlanta-based Great Wraps; Greensboro, North Carolina–based Biscuitville; and Emeryville, California–based Peet’s Coffee & Tea are three brands that have recently hired seasoned chefs to spearhead new-menu campaigns.

While Great Wraps originally focused much of its growth on mall food-court locations, it is now focusing on “café-style, street-side” eateries, says chairman Mark Kaplan. As part of that, the brand debuted a new menu of grilled and Panini sandwiches and rice bowls featuring premium ingredients such as all-white-meat chicken, which is cooked in front of guests. Vegetables for the sandwiches, wraps, and rice bowls are also roasted in front of guests, while new sauces for the dishes are made in-house.

The new items are on display at a new café-style restaurant in College Station, Texas, where customers have responded very favorably to the menu. “Customers are looking for better, healthier, and more sustainable food options, but they will not compromise on flavor,” Kaplan says.

“Consumers definitely deem these chefs knowledgeable about food and know that these chefs would only prepare food that they themselves would eat.”

In order to develop foods that are both healthy and flavorful, Great Wraps brought on Chef Johnny Carino, owner of Johnny Carino Italian Restaurants and a consultant for several restaurant brands. “He is able to take this new food expression that we have to the franchisees and help them understand how to execute it,” Kaplan says. In addition, Carino will continue to evolve the menu and develop limited-time offers for Great Wraps.

The brand also hired Chef Jason Moore, a consultant who previously developed menu items for California Pizza Kitchen and Panda Express, among other restaurant chains. “He was the first one we brought on. He understands developing flavor notes for us,” Kaplan says.

Like Great Wraps, 54-unit Biscuitville brought on a professional chef and culinary consultant to develop its new menu. Andrew Hunter, who has developed products for Wolfgang Puck and other brands, designed the “Fresh Southern” menu, which is part of a Biscuitville rebrand announced in late February that also features store renovations, a new logo, and new packaging.

The chain rolled out the “Fresh Southern” menu to one unit on April 1. It includes sandwiches using local ingredients and scratch-made sauces, such as the Maple Country Ham & Fried Chicken Club made with North Carolina ham and house-made maple ginger sauce. Hand-breaded and fried okra is another new signature item on the menu.

“We are really trying to take the idea of being local and unique and refreshingly Southern,” says Kathie Niven, chief brand officer for Biscuitville. “Consumers consider those qualities to be important, and of course they want great-tasting food.”

Biscuitville executives met Hunter three years ago when he was part of a consulting team the chain brought in to review all aspects of its operation. Executives were impressed with Hunter, who originally brought in around 100 different sandwich recipes, which Biscuitville executives and customers narrowed down to seven that made the final cut.

“It is not an obvious fit, pairing a big, well-recognized chef with a small family-owned business,” Niven says. “But he has said this is one of the most exciting projects he has worked on, and he’s been a big advocate for the brand.”

Peet’s enlisted San Francisco Bay–area chef Arnold Eric Wong, owner of the Raison D’etre bakery, when it developed food items for the first time earlier this year. In early February, Peet’s launched its “Fresh Grab & Go” menu in 126 Northern California stores. The food menu, which features healthy, vegan, and gluten-free options, includes an Applewood Smoked Ham Sandwich, Super Greens & Kale Salad, Quinoa Salad, and a Cheese and Fruit Box.

“Our customers have been asking for fresh, locally made, healthy food options, and now we’ve answered,” says Lisa Kalfus, director of retail marketing and merchandising for Peet’s. “Northern California Peet’s customers have been delighted and provide extremely positive feedback.”

Taco Bell was one of the first quick-service brands to enlist menu help from a more upscale chef, which it did when it brought on celebrity chef Lorena Garcia to develop its Cantina Bell menu in the summer of 2012. With premium menu items priced at under $5 each, the Cantina Bell menu—and the partnership with Garcia—continues to pay off for the brand.

“Taco Bell was struggling a lot at the time, and people were judging the quality of the beef as poor,” says Lizzy Freier, an editor at foodservice consulting firm Technomic. “After [bringing on Garcia], consumers started to see Taco Bell as not just having the late-night, unhealthy food menu. Millennials, especially, appreciate the high-quality ingredients.”

Freier says that kind of chef notoriety—which Peet’s is hoping for with Wong, who is well known in Northern California—helps brands develop credibility with customers, particularly when rolling out new menus or adding food items to their beverage menus, as Peet’s is doing.

“Consumers definitely deem these chefs knowledgeable about food and know that these chefs would only prepare food that they themselves would eat,” Freier says.