Menu Innovations | August 2013 | By Lori Zanteson

Built by Design

American fare is a natural for build-your-own brands.

When it comes to all-American food like salads, sandwiches, and burgers, we all have our own version of perfect.

Assembly-line quick-service concepts are making sure customers have the ability to create that perfect menu item. By offering an array of fresh, quality ingredients—from conventional to gourmet—with the option to start from scratch or customize an existing menu item, build-your-own brands are introducing flavors and flavor combinations that engage, entice, and satisfy every palate.

The build-your-own model has picked up momentum in the last two to three years, says David Kincheloe, president of Denver-based National Restaurant Consultants.

“Everyone wants to emulate Chipotle,” he says. “It’s that ‘Chipotle model,’ even though Subway had it first. It’s now morphed into Mexican, Mediterranean, burgers, and pizzas.”

The appeal of presenting a standard burger concept, for example, with a Chipotle-style assembly line has a lot to do with customer perception, Kincheloe says. The exact same product made in front of the customer versus in the back of the house is perceived as superior. Fresh ingredients are immediately recognizable on a build-your-own line. It’s also a strategic way to showcase ingredient type, variety, and quality.

“Our success relies on the freshness of our products,” says John Scardapane, chief executive officer and founder of Saladworks, a Pennsylvania-based salad concept with more than 100 locations across the country. “Our customers are looking for freshly prepared ingredients.”

Saladworks offers more than 60 ingredients for its create-your-own salad option, ranging from the basics that guests come to expect in a salad—spinach, chicken, mushrooms, and tomatoes—but also those with a little more distinction, such as radiatori pasta, honey barbecue chicken, focaccia croutons, and edamame. “We want to make sure we have enough variety,” says Scardapane, who says the number of ingredients is only limited by space in the display case.

Because Saladworks’s ingredients don’t have preservatives, Scardapane says, the company makes sure there’s food turnover by using the point-of-sale system, which traces all salad ingredients to determine how they’ve sold. “We’re constantly monitoring that. If it’s not moving, sub it,” he says.

Brian Chodash, vice president of marketing at Tossed, the Florida-based make-your-own salad concept with seven locations and 68 under development throughout North America, credits the company’s gourmet ingredient offerings for making it different.

“Anyone has cucumbers or onion,” he says. “We use jicama, for example. It’s a unique root, which, like an apple, adds a nice crunch.”

While Tossed hasn’t abandoned those cucumbers and onions on its menu, they may be overshadowed by banana peppers, roasted onions, smoked bacon, mango, plantain chips, and cayenne shrimp. “We want to give our guests a lot of options to build their dream salad,” Chodash says. “People say, ‘Wow, you have so much,’ but it’s a good ‘wow.’ You want them to keep coming back to try new things.”

Ingredients on Tossed’s assembly line are always tracked to gauge popularity and ensure the company stays on trend. Goat cheese is definitely in right now, Chodash says, and blackened chicken is one of its most popular items. When people design their own salads, he says, proteins are of utmost importance, so Tossed strives to stay different in these offerings. It offers five varieties of chicken, including Tarragon Chicken Salad and Pesto Chicken. There is also Smoked Turkey, Black Forest Ham, Cayenne Shrimp, and Tossed Tuna (tuna mixed with dried cranberries, apples, and mayonnaise).

Having the ability to build their own entrée from scratch gives customers the choice they crave, but pre-designed items also do very well at assembly-line concepts.

“All of our sandwiches are like building blocks,” says Les Winograd, company spokesman for Subway. “A lot of people have something in mind. They know what they like and don’t like—we allow them to weed it out. Knowing they can get anything they want keeps them coming back. It becomes their sandwich.”

At Quiznos, chef-created sandwiches are the biggest sellers, says Susan Lintonsmith, chief marketing officer. “The majority of our customers order a recommended sandwich the way it is,” she says, but she adds that there are many who enjoy customizing them.

The sandwich basics come down to bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, and dressings, Lintonsmith says, of which Quiznos offers a wide variety, including signature meats, four kinds of bread, and 22 sauces. Still, “people sway toward the familiar,” she says.

Quiznos offers limited-time offers in which the focus is mostly on innovative protein options, with items like lobster, pulled pork, and apple-smoked bacon offered throughout the year. “We see an increase in traffic during our LTOs,” Lintonsmith says.

Even with enough ingredients to create more than 37 million possible varieties of sandwiches, Subway is always looking for new offerings, Winograd says. One of the R&D team’s focuses is trying ingredients already in the restaurant but in different combinations, even something simple like pepperoni as an add-on to a turkey sub or something more detailed like the chef-created Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sandwich that Winograd says is “breaking the mold” in terms of innovative sandwich design. That sandwich is roasted chicken in a teriyaki glaze with a fat-free sweet onion sauce.

When it comes to specific dietary needs, whether it’s fat-free, low-sodium, gluten-free, or dairy-free, Subway can help customers build their sandwiches to whatever need they request. Mixing in several healthy ingredient options means customers can make something healthy that also tastes good, Winograd says, or, “if you’re looking for something indulgent, we can do that, too.”

Variety is served up with quirky vibes at Which Wich, the Dallas-based sandwich concept with more than 200 stores and 300 in development across 30 states and four countries. More than 50 varieties of customizable “’wiches”—from the signature Wicked sandwich with five meats and three cheeses to the sub-400-calorie healthy sandwiches—are on the menu, with the ability for customers to choose from among more than 60 toppings, 10 cheeses, and three sizes, all of which can be served on white or wheat bread, in a bowl, or wrapped in lettuce as a handheld, portable salad. That makes for about 56 trillion different entrée combinations.

“We have tremendous bandwidth in ingredients, which allows for a high level of customization,” says James Pa, vice president of operations. “Our fans tell us it’s our vibe that really encourages them to express themselves.”

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