Web Exclusive | December 2010 | By Sam Oches

Pei Wei’s R&D: Exposed

The Asian concept will invite one blogger to tag along on the executive chef’s research trip to five Asian nations, documenting in stories, photos, and video along the way.
Pei Wei's menu is inspired by food from five Asian nations.
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There’s nothing unusual about a quick-serve concept doing a little bit of R&D homework in the culinary environment that inspired its menu. So when Chef Eric Justice, executive chef of Asian concept Pei Wei, visits Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea next year to do some menu brainstorming, it won’t be out of the ordinary.

What will be out of the ordinary is the blogger who will tag along with the chef to communicate every last detail of his travels to Pei Wei fans around the world.

“We don't want the information to seem contrived, too marketed, or too Pei Wei–centric,” Justice said in an e-mail to QSR while traveling home from London, where he was doing additional R&D. “It is important it is an outside voice recording things as they are and not as we might tell the story. I am too close to the food, so my experience may not be as new or fresh as someone who has not been there before.”

The company is calling for applications from wannabe food and travel bloggers for its Blog Asia opportunity. Pei Wei will contract the winner to travel with Justice for 15 days from late February to early March, eating everything he eats and documenting through stories, pictures, and video.

“One of the more unique attributes about Pei Wei that our guests find appealing is that we offer dishes and flavors from five countries across Asia,” says Terry Haley, vice president of marketing for Pei Wei. “Blog Asia allows us to really give them more of an insider’s perspective of where those dishes are coming from, and how our chefs experience them overseas and then bring them back to enjoy it.”

Asian Blog applicants must include a bio and sample blog posts, and the company suggests including photo and video samples as well. Haley says Pei Wei will be looking for a blogger who can relate to, engage with, and entertain the everyday Pei Wei consumer.

“I think it gets more credence when it’s coming from other people, versus directly from the restaurant,” he says. “People are wary of what the corporate marketers are going to say, and what our message is. They tend to carry a little less weight, especially when you’re talking about authenticity [or] quality, because everyone talks about it.

“But when another consumer is telling the story for you, I think it’s going to resonate more, and it’s going to carry more weight with the everyday consumer, particularly with those who are going to share your story with others.”

The rise of online environments like social media sites and blogs allows brands to be more transparent with their customers, and Haley says campaigns such as this help show consumers the authenticity of a brand.

While Haley acknowledges that there can be dangers in handing over a brand’s communication efforts to an outside contributor, he says it’s necessary in today’s digital world for brand marketers to strike a balance between the corporate voice and layman-speak.

“How early and how deep do you share your innovation with guests, knowing that competitors are going to be able to pick it up and perhaps beat you to the punch?” Haley says. “You have to protect your competitive advantage, but I do think that it’s important to use these avenues to have honest and forthright discussions with your guests.”

Justice, who says he’s interested in sampling the barbecue dishes in Asia and is looking for ideas for Pei Wei’s First Taste menu, says the access food brands can give consumers online is what is driving culinary passion across the country—passion that keeps them coming back for more.

“People are wary of what the corporate marketers are going to say. But when another consumer is telling the story for you, I think it's going to resonate more.”

“We as a country did not have the depth, culture, and sensibility of great food like older countries do,” he says. “[Social media] has opened up people’s eyes to what artisanal, remarkable, really focused food can be. Restaurants or chefs without a big budget or name can now make it, all they have to be is remarkable. That spreads like wildfire now with the Internet and social media. I love it because truly great food prevails even if it's a food truck, pop-up restaurant, or food stall.”

Jacob Morgan, a social media consultant and principal of Chess Media Group, says it’s good to give consumers as much access to a brand as possible, especially through tools that make it easy like social media.

“You’re not going to share financial information, and you’re not going to share your secret recipe,” Morgan says. “There are always going to be some things that you don’t want other people to know, but as much transparency as a company is comfortable giving, then [they should do it].”

In fact, Morgan says Pei Wei’s move to recruit a blogger for its R&D travels is smart because it gives the company a small amount of control over what that blogger says.

“If this blogger isn’t doing it, then I’m sure there are plenty of other bloggers that are talking about Pei Wei right now,” Morgan says. “By Pei Wei having a third-party blogger doing it, they’re actually mitigating the risk because, instead of just having some random person out there talking about it, they’re able to spend time with this blogger, make sure the right messaging gets across, make sure the proper brand image gets across.”