Higher prices or shakiness of the economy notwithstanding, people still have to eat. But quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants have had to rethink the definition of “value" against the ever-evolving backdrop.
"Both guests and restaurateurs alike are price sensitive at this moment, so everyone is looking to create and communicate value, and bundled or value meals make that possible," says Sean Willard, a menu engineering specialist in San Diego, California.
Del Taco is one brand that welcomed 2023 by offering more value.
The brand has a "20 under $2" menu, featuring items like Chicken Tacos Del Carbon and 3 Layer Queso Nachos. And in case that wasn't enough, the 600-unit chain also offered a free item from that menu to any of its Del Yeah! Rewards members with a $3 purchase through its app, which helps encourage consumers to sign up.
"We know when inflation is coming and we saw this and said here’s a really great opportunity for us,” chief marketing officer Tim Hackbardt says.
While historic value menus focused on the $1 mark, Del Taco decided to make its slightly more expensive "to offer products with a little more flavor or were a little more interesting," Hackbardt says. "We know consumers tend to think value menus are less exciting menu items."
Along with food choices, Del Taco displays iced drinks, mini shakes, and dessert items like churros. "We knew if you could deliver variety for the consumer, they liked it. What they didn’t like was a value menu with just a couple of items. They would frequent a brand with variety and decent quality much more often," Hackbardt says.
Del Taco's 20 for $2 menu has a very high take rate, he says. "It’s a good portion of our menu so we know it’s popular. This also works well to make the brand more appealing for your meal occasion. And it’s interesting because every time you come in you can pick something different off this menu."
Urban Plates also decided to start 2023 with a value bang, upgrading its signature Plate Pass program to include more savings on additional menu items. The program offers 20 percent off a guest's entire check; it includes purchases made on the company's app and at the cash register; and the new subscription price was sliced in half, to $5 a month.
"People are cutting back. And we want to make Urban Plates an easy choice; we don’t want them to feel they have to cut back on our food," says Steve Greer, the fast casual’s chief marketing officer. "It's better that they come with a discount than they don’t come."
To raise awareness, Urban Plates relied heavily on in-store signage. Customers can make back the $5 subscription cost in one trip if they're buying more than two entrees, Greer explains.
And it's easy to sign up new members in the store—they can join while buying a meal and start saving immediately.
Information on the program is also disseminated on social media. "We want it to be across the brand story," Greer says.
The specials are not valid for delivery due to the hefty commissions third-party companies charge. "It would be really hard and not financially feasible to make Plate Pass available for delivery," he adds.
Focus on large orders
Other restaurant operators are focusing on offering value to larger groups.
"Offering complete meals including side dishes, bread, beverages, and dessert for a fixed price is extremely appealing,” says Arlene Spiegel, a restaurant consultant in New York City. "It also helps the homemaker feel less guilty for not cooking from scratch while providing a home-cooked-style meal for the household."
These meals are beneficial for operators, too, she adds. "Large orders have a higher ticket average than single-serve. With the curation of a fixed price menu, with limited choices, operators can control and predict their food costs and associated delivery fees."
Fazoli's is focusing its value menu toward family bundles, notes Tisha Bartlett, its vice president of marketing.
"Bundles are a great value but we also have a la carte so they can add pasta or a salad which are great for add-ons," she says. The most popular offering is the Super Family Meal ($30), which serves eight people and includes two pasta dishes, a pizza, lemonade or tea, and breadsticks. "That's a differentiator for us," she says. "Most [quick-service restaurants] serve four. Ours is a hearty meal plus leftovers. And we do have different levels so they can pick and choose what they want." The biggest one is Super Family Meal that serves eight.
Family meals are 6–7 percent of Fazoli's menu mix, so it makes sense to offer something that caters to this group.
Mendocino Farms rolled out group order deals starting on Super Bowl Sunday, which offered 25 percent off catering orders of $100 or more.
"Super Bowl Sunday is not a big day for us but it is a big gathering day," COO Steve Mintzer says. "But how do we get into their houses? Pre-COVID catering was a significant part of our business and during COVID it was zero but we’ve been climbing back into it. We have always been recognized for great value so how do we get people to think of Mendocino Farms when they're outside the restaurant?"
As an added plus, Mintzer says, catering consumers often convert to in-store guests.
Mendocino Farms featured something for individual orders, too, menuing the reformulated Countryside Cobb Salad for $8 (normally $13.95) to its My Mendo members. "It's important right now for people to focus on value and we wanted to surprise and delight our My Mendo members," Mintzer says.
The company promoted both of its value offerings on social media, with some in-store signage. It also sends out email blasts to My Mendo members, which, Mintzer says, "is our way to stay connected."