Menu Innovations | June 2013 | By Sam Oches

Inside the Test Kitchen

R&D experts from around the industry pull back the curtain on how they perfect their signature menu items.

Noodles & Co. chef Tessa Stamper works in a test kitchen at the company’s headqu
Noodles & Co. chef Tessa Stamper works in a test kitchen at the company’s headquarters that is designed like an average Noodles restaurant. noodles & co.
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Ray White has a problem. The chief foodie and head of product development for Southern California–based Veggie Grill wants to put bacon on his menu.

To the average quick-service operator, this doesn’t seem like a problem at all. But consider that Veggie Grill is an all-vegan concept offering 100 percent plant-based food. If White wants to put bacon on the menu, it has to be made of meat substitutes like tofu, seitan, or tempeh. Consider, too, that White wants the product to have the same flavor and textural profiles as regular bacon.

It’s a tall order, and one that has kept White tinkering for at least two years, so far without success.

“That’s the holy grail,” White says. “If we could do bacon, we could all buy an island out in the Pacific somewhere.”

While White’s bacon quandary isn’t exactly an industry-wide issue, his task of developing menu items that fit with the brand’s core mission and customer expectations is a regular challenge faced by R&D experts across the quick-service industry. It’s a process that can take an enormous amount of time and resources.

Many R&D chiefs, though, think they’ve boiled down the development process to a not-so-simple science. Here, a handful of those experts offer a sneak peek at their R&D process, from ideation to menu.

Step 1: Ideation

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that bacon is good for a menu. But not every development decision is as simple as knowing which products will work and setting out to put them on the menu.

Take Taco Bell’s mega-popular Doritos Locos Taco as an example. Even if customers thought the nacho-cheese Dorito—and, later, the Cool Ranch variety—was a no-brainer in taco form, it wasn’t so obvious to Taco Bell’s culinary team until a couple of years ago.

“That was one of those ideas that someone said, ‘What if?’” says Liz Matthews, director of product development for Taco Bell. “We were in an ideation session with our partners at Frito, and someone said, ‘What if the taco shell was a nacho cheese Dorito?’ And that’s really where it started.”

That ideation session has paid off handsomely for Taco Bell; according to reports, the brand sold nearly 400 million Doritos Locos Tacos in 2012, its biggest product launch to date.

The innovation pipeline has been rich for Taco Bell in the last year. In 2012, the company also launched its Cantina Bell menu, a lineup of premium bowls and burritos developed in part by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia. Rob Lynch, vice president of marketing at Taco Bell, says that much like the origination of the Doritos Locos Taco, the impetus for all menu items is a collaborative effort involving employees in the field and at the corporate office.

“We’ve created an environment where … ideas can come from anywhere,” Lynch says. “Really all it takes is someone in the organization who has an idea, sends it to my consumer insights team, simply … an e-mail that says ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’” He says Taco Bell gets about 100 ideas every month. Those that rise to the top are fleshed out so the culinary team can figure out how each idea might fit customer expectations and needs, he says.

For other brands, the ideation process is achieved on a smaller scale. Bruegger’s executive chef Philip Smith says he regularly researches restaurant industry trends, including in the fine-dining and casual-dining sectors, to understand which ingredients and flavors are resonating with consumers. The challenge, he says, is coming up with ideas that are innovative but maximize existing Bruegger’s ingredients and procedures, while also aligning with customer expectations.

“It’s balancing, on any given day, what it is that’s our core, what we’re credible for, what our guests expect from us, and at the same time reconciling all of the trend information [and] seasonal information,” Smith says. “Are we trying to drive sales from new ingredients? Are we trying to drive repetition?”

Others find that getting into the field is the best way to get a taste of what’s possible in the restaurant industry. Veggie Grill’s White says he regularly visits other Los Angeles restaurants to get a handle on food trends. Similarly, Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage for Corner Bakery, travels to restaurants and trade shows around the U.S. to see first-hand which trends are influencing fellow operators.

Corner Bakery’s culinary strategy committee made up of Scicchitano, C-suite executives, and a franchising representative meets quarterly to help Scicchitano and his team funnel the ideas they collect into viable Corner Bakery menu items.

“We start talking about what could be, what couldn’t be, what’s feasible, what’s not feasible,” he says, noting that the committee is planning as far ahead as one or two years for new products. “At this stage, it’s really important to realize that the feasibility filter is very rough, it’s very crude. There isn’t an up or down vote.”

At least, not yet.

Step 2: Development

To support its strong lunch business, Corner Bakery has a deep line of premium sandwiches, from the Chicken Pesto on Ciabatta Ficelle to the Poblano Fresco on Poblano Cheese Bread and the D.C. Chicken Salad on Steakhouse Rye.

Chances are, each of them survived a cutthroat testing process and outlasted other possible sandwich opportunities to find its way to the menuboard.

“I always tell everybody, you get in the Hall of Fame for batting .300,” Scicchitano says. “So if we go out there with 10 items, I don’t expect all 10 of them to work. If we’re going to test sandwiches, I’m going to have four, five, or six sandwiches out there, so I’m going to find out the ones that guests like, that really rise to the top. … With all of the effort you put out there, you have to have a higher chance of success.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Scicchitano and his team can come up with so many options; the kitchen is where chefs come alive, and quick-service chefs are not so different from fine-dining chefs. Many of them graduate from culinary academies, and some have even run their own restaurants before finding their way to the fast food world.

Bruegger’s Smith says this is a real advantage for quick-service companies.

“If you want to take someone like a quick serve or some more narrowly defined concept forward, it’s hard to do that with someone who’s come from a less-evolved concept,” he says. “If you come from a more full-service background, you at least have this portfolio of ideas in your head, so you understand flavors and appeal. Then you can take them and make them work within a system.”

Like Scicchitano, Smith says he develops several menu options before whittling the list down to a few to present to the company’s leadership team. He says he’s constantly considering the restaurant’s existing pantry list, and will visit the Bruegger’s next door to the company’s headquarters to consult with that restaurant’s general manager.

“I’ve got to make it work for the system,” he says. “My job is not to try to throw the operation into fits and starts. It’s to make things work for them, but at the same time bring new culinary excitement so there are new and existing things out there.”

Figuring out how to do that can take time. The Doritos Locos Taco went through several iterations and took about two years to develop, Matthews says, but it was mostly because the culinary team knew the product had nearly no room for error.