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.”

In fact, customers are responsible for some underground menu items that have evolved at Which Wich. Fans created a Waldorf salad by tweaking a couple of ingredients in one of the bowl salads; a cheeseburger ’wich; a California roll ’wich; and a pepperoni pizza ’wich, to name a few.

Despite all of the possible creativity, the most popular item at Which Wich is the Turkey Wich, a traditional turkey, lettuce, tomato, and mayo base that can be built up or down as desired. Meanwhile, the gyro with tzatziki sauce is the No. 2 best seller, followed by the Wicked and the Thank You Turkey, with stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Built Custom Burgers is a new fast-casual concept from The Counter, the Los Angeles–based full-service build-your-own-burger chain of 37 restaurants. Guests move from station to station, selecting a protein, cheese, toppings, sauce, and style (on a bun or in a bowl, salad-style), as well as sides and drinks.

Guests expect quality ingredients and a better burger, says Mike Costello, director of marketing, and the variety of an ever-changing menu with “a new featured cheese, topping, and sauce that rotates regularly so guests can have a different Built experience each time they visit. Last week, it was Manchego cheese, roasted sea salt corn, and sweet sriracha sauce. This week it’s soft-ripened Brie, grilled pineapple, and sesame ginger dressing.”

Still, customers lean toward tradition, he says. “Lettuce, red onions, pickles, and tomatoes still rule the day,” Costello says. “For cheese, it’s Cheddar and American.” But Costello says customers will often mix things up by adding something new to their familiar standbys, such as fresh jalapeños or sliced cucumbers.

While he acknowledges there’s no “magic number” of ingredients to offer guests for the optimal customization experience, Costello believes the choices should be “substantive and differentiated. Otherwise, what’s the point? Where’s the excitement?”

But the success of the finished product really depends on the burger, he adds. The toppings, cheeses, sauces, and buns don’t matter at all if the burger isn’t grilled properly.

Customers at Aramark’s Burger Studio, a student-created concept on college campuses around the country, rave about the quality and flavor of its Angus beef burgers, says Michael Gilligan, development director of Aramark Higher Education. Burger Studio features touch-screen ordering kiosks where customers build their own burger. They choose from among 30 toppings and sauces, four types of cheese, and three premium toppings: bacon, guacamole, and fried egg.

“The most popular toppings are the traditional mixture of lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and ketchup,” Gilligan says. “But bacon is a big seller, and so are the options such as caramelized onions, chipotle mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, and honey mustard.”

A monthly promotional option gives new energy to existing items on the menu by presenting them in a different way or in a new flavor profile.

“Our recent Pepper Relish burger used the daily burger patty, but added a cherry pepper relish for a spicy-sweet kick that customers loved,” Gilligan says.

The build-your-own burger bar at Cheeseburger Bobby’s seven Georgia locations is a major differentiating point for the brand, says Jay Bandy, director of operations. Guests can order a burger or a double burger from the menu, which is what about 75 percent of them do, or they can order a partially built burger from the menu that they finish off themselves at the ingredient bar. There are seven specialty burgers, which include the Bobby’s Bacon Cheeseburger; Bobby’s Black & Bleu Burger, with Swiss cheese and blue cheese crumbles; and Bobby’s Chili Cheeseburger with chili and Cheddar cheese.

Burgers are cooked to order within five and a half minutes and are served open-faced to customize at the self-service burger bar. Guests can choose among toppings and sauces, and they also have the option to season their burgers and side orders of fries or onion rings with a choice of several different salts—jalapeño salt, barbecue, salt and vinegar, Cajun, or low sodium. “It’s the variety that people like,” Bandy says. “It allows folks to customize and add a different flavor.”

Burger-bar ingredients rotate to include items in limited-time-offer burgers, which are available three to four times a year. The Baja Burger, a summer LTO the brand brings back due to its popularity, has chipotle mayo, guacamole, chili, and Pepper Jack cheese. Limited-time offers “help us eliminate the complexity of the menu,” Bandy says.

Though the number of ingredients is only limited by space in the burger bar, Bandy says, it’s possible for customers to have too much choice, as people are indecisive. “We sprinkle out and in based on the season,” he says. “We give the guest as many choices as we can execute well.”