While some limited-service brands have added snacks to their menus as a way to expand the frequency with which guests visit the restaurant, some brands have designed their entire concepts around menu items that could never pass for an entrée. Just look at Auntie Anne’s; the nearly 30-year-old pretzel chain has positioned itself as a go-to snacking occasion by setting up shop mostly in nontraditional locations like malls and airports, and boasts a pretzel menu whose items are easily consumed on the go.

Melanie Auxer, Auntie Anne’s culinary director, explains how the company approaches its research and development, particularly with a core item that’s typically enjoyed between the traditional dayparts.

What is Auntie Anne’s menu development process like?

We have a menu innovation team. It’s an internal team that’s responsible for leading all of our new-product development and testing. It’s not just the culinary team’s responsibility; we take a collaborative approach between not only culinary, but also marketing, training, operations, and our supply chain team.

This team is not only responsible for conducting consumer research, but also staying on top of those industry and consumer trends that include snacking. Within Auntie Anne’s, we’re developing products to solve for consumers’ various need states. There are so many, but some of the things that are really important are freshness, convenience, and shareability. So we’ll ideate and brainstorm around those areas, and then we’ll review them with consumers.

What are some other characteristics important to the snack innovation?

Portability is definitely something for Auntie Anne’s, because our consumers are on the go, whether in a mall or in the airport. They may have shopping bags in one hand; they may have a stroller or a suitcase in the other hand. We need products that are easy to eat and convenient to carry. So along with the freshness, convenience, and shareability, portability is something we’re always considering when we’re developing new products.

Trends are so fast in foodservice. How do you ensure your new products are timely?

When we’re looking at trends, we want to hit that trend timeline just right. We have in the past had products that were way too far ahead of our time for an Auntie Anne’s consumer. The Auntie Anne’s consumer is closer to that mainstream timeline, but we’re always looking at trends to see what might be a brand fit. It’s more than just flavor. We’re looking at how consumers eat, what they eat, and who they eat with. But we want to make ourselves that go-to snack wherever you are, and to do that, we have to understand more than just the flavor trends to stay relevant.

One way we do that is through limited-time offers, where we’ll introduce a product in just a handful of stores and test it in that time frame. We actually did Pumpkin Spice Pretzel Nuggets in 2013 and then rolled it out nationally in 2015. And now you pretty much need to have something pumpkin spice this time of year.

How do you try to make sure trendy new products aren’t too much of a novelty?

We always want the consumer input. We recently had our Pretzel Nation Creation campaign, where we asked consumers to vote on the next flavor for Auntie Anne’s. This one was a great example where, while we knew about sriracha a long time ago and it was that emerging flavor trend, it took us until now, until our consumers were at a place where they were willing to see that as a fit for Auntie Anne’s. Pretzel Nation Creation was a contest where we allowed guests to vote on the next flavor of pretzel. We had over a million fans vote, and sriracha won by a landslide. The Sriracha Pretzel launched nationwide on October 23, and it’s going to be available for a limited time, but when we tried to do this flavor years ago, our consumers had no interest in it. They didn’t understand it.

Who is Auntie Anne’s target consumer, and what are they looking for in snacks?

We’re definitely targeting millennials. We’re targeting those moms that are in our mall locations and may have a stroller and maybe have some kids with them, which is why that shareability piece is so important, and the portability piece as well.

What does the future look like for Auntie Anne’s menu innovation?

We’re really excited about it. I can’t give you all the secrets, but I’ll give you a little teaser: In 2018, we are finally giving our snacking consumers something that they’ve been asking for. And I think they’re going to be really excited about it.

Business Advice, Menu Innovations, Story, Auntie Anne's