Web Exclusive | May 2013 | By Daniel P. Smith

The Corner of Innovation

Corner Bakery Café’s new menu items push fast-casual boundaries.

Corner Bakery's new menu items use fresh ingredients to offer premium quality.
Corner Bakery's Garden Gate Scrambler Corner Bakery
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In a push to distinguish itself from growing competition in the fast-casual bakery-café space, Corner Bakery Café is doubling down on menu innovation.

The 22-year-old, Dallas-based chain recently leveraged its high-quality kitchen equipment and capabilities, as well as more than 40 fresh fruits and vegetables delivered daily to its stores, to launch a handful of seasonal offerings.

“I don’t want to chase competitors,” says Ric Scicchitano, Corner Bakery Café’s senior vice president of food and beverage, who spoke at an exclusive launch event in Chicago. “I want our guests to see how things at Corner Bakery are different, and I believe we’ll get credit for that.”

Among the limited-time offerings that debuted April 30, the Garden Gate Scrambler especially characterizes Corner Bakery’s use of existing premium ingredients to push the boundaries of bakery-café fare. The breakfast dish features all-natural chicken apple sausage, fresh spinach, mushrooms, peppers, Cheddar cheese, and eggs scrambled to order over an open flame.

Other new Corner Bakery offerings include a Spring Asparagus Soup and a pair of sandwiches: the Roasted Veggie (zucchini, artichokes, roasted tomatoes, balsamic onions, and fresh arugula) and the Roast Beef & Goat Cheese (roast beef, fresh arugula, tomatoes, and balsamic onions), each served on freshly baked potato thyme bread with a creamy goat cheese spread.

“Spring is a good time for us to take the gloves off and do new things with the menu,” Scicchitano says.

Veteran restaurant analyst Dennis Lombardi credits Corner Bakery with using two of its most compelling internal assets to deliver on-trend menu offerings that play to the chain’s core, upscale niche.

“While fresh continues to be the most powerful adjective in food, wholesome, better-for-me, and high-quality [foods] are all things guests like to be aware of during their restaurant visits as well,” says Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for Ohio-based WD Partners. “That’s precisely what Corner Bakery is playing to here.”

“Our guests are discriminating, seeking menu items that are prepared to order with ingredients that they might not find in their own kitchens.”

With so many on-site ingredients and its expansive kitchen operations, Lombardi says, Corner Bakery also captures the opportunity to customize its dishes, something competitors with commissary operations struggle to achieve at a high level.

It’s that customization, Scicchitano says, that will spark return traffic to the nearly 150 Corner Bakery units spread across the U.S.

“Our frequent guests, in particular, want to see something new, and we’re going to give it to them,” he says.

Corner Bakery Café’s chief marketing officer, Diana Hovey, says product innovation is a critical differentiator at a time when competition in the fast-casual category is growing fierce.

“We find that our guests are discriminating, seeking menu items that are prepared to order with ingredients that they might not find in their own kitchens,” she says.

Originally founded by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, one of the nation’s premier restaurant groups, Corner Bakery Café is positioned on the upper end of fast casual. (Lettuce Entertain You sold the concept to Brinker International in 1996. A leveraged buyout in 2006 took Corner Bakery into private ownership.)

With that spirit in tow, Scicchitano promises that the ambitious culinary innovations will continue at Corner Bakery, particularly as the concept looks to expand its breakfast and dinner business beyond each daypart’s current 20 percent share.

Scicchitano teases future product launches, including stews and chowders in the fall and the potential arrival of pancakes, which could enhance the chain’s breakfast appeal. He adds that the concept is willing to roll out potentially polarizing items—goat cheese on the newly launched sandwiches serving as one example—in its quest to deliver a memorable experience for guests and items that diners cannot enjoy elsewhere.

“Our menu has to change,” Scicchitano says. “You cannot be static in the café space.”

To that point, however, Scicchitano acknowledges that the company’s culinary ambition cannot overpower the practical efficiency necessary to deliver on the expectations of fast-casual guests. He points to the made-to-order sandwiches as items that respect the demands of kitchen staff to execute with speed and consistency.

“In our space, speed is key. These sandwiches have five to six layers, and that’s good for us,” he says. “We always need to balance our innovation with what we can execute and move in our stores.”

Lombardi says Corner Bakery’s evolution has always been positive, and trusts that the continued menu innovations will further lift the concept.

“Corner Bakery has a track record of managing their brand well, and [these new offerings] simply continue that tradition,” he says.