During the fall and winter months, it’s easy to feel as if restaurant operators are merely jumping onto the “pumpkin spice” or “peppermint” trends of the season. While incorporating these flavors can certainly be crowd-pleasers, the strategic implementation of seasonal menu items can have a measurable impact on a restaurant’s business all year long. The Turkey Cranberry Panini available at Nature’s Table, for example, a dish that sounds as if it can only be served in November and December, can be found on the menu any day of the year. Thanks in part to the fast-casual chain’s strategic use of seasonal menu items, Nature’s Table found a crowd-pleaser popular enough to withstand each season.

Weighing the benefits and drawbacks to incorporating the flavors of the season into short-term menu offerings is an important part of determining how a new menu item will impact your business. The pros to integrating seasonal menu items can far outweigh the cons if the right communication is made to both restaurant guests and staff members. Seasonal menu items can work for the restaurant in the following ways: 

Avoid Menu Fatigue

For some, familiarity can be comforting, but for others, familiarity can be exhausting. When the same menu offerings day in and day out lead guests to search for options elsewhere, they may be suffering from “menu fatigue.” Seasonal menu items can help combat this phenomenon by incorporating a new, exciting item available for those who want to venture off the usual menu path.

Test New Menu Items

Seasonal menu items are the perfect way to try out your potential new addition with your customers. By labeling the item as seasonal, customers won’t be surprised if the item disappears in a few months after limited acceptance or success. On the flip side, should the new menu item be successful, you have the opportunity to establish it as a permanent fixture to your menu (like the aforementioned Turkey Cranberry Panini).

Engage with Customers

Seasonal menu items give you the opportunity to make your new menu items fun. Ask customers for their feedback via in-restaurant comment cards and social media. Social media contests that pit one new menu item against the other are a great way to increase engagement on your social platforms as well as in the restaurant. By encouraging guests to be part of the conversation, they’ll feel as if they are an active part in shaping their menu experience.

Engage with your Restaurant Team

With the new menu items comes the chance to engage with your internal team as well. Consider soliciting input from your team members on seasonal items they want to see in their location. Offer a prize for any seasonal or permanent menu items that are implemented. To encourage team members to feature the new item, run a contest, either within the system or each restaurant. Offer a prize to the restaurant or team member that generates the highest sales of new seasonal items.  These strategies give you the chance to encourage camaraderie and motivate your employees.

Most drawbacks to incorporating new seasonal menu items can be avoided with proper communication to the restaurant team and its guests. For example:

For Some, Change can be Overwhelming

For some die-hard regulars, even the slightest change can be too much to handle. To combat negative feelings toward the fresh and new menu item, make sure to communicate your intentions for the additions to your guests. Communicate that the new items will only be available for a limited time and be specific.

Training Employees Can be Time-Consuming

If your seasonal menu item has an extensive prep or serving process, the training of employees for a new short-term menu item that will eventually leave the menu can seem like a waste of time and money. However, this is a valuable place for the testing of new menu items. This experience gives your restaurant the opportunity to learn whether the items are worth the investment.

Flow Disruption

Whether it’s back of house (BOH) or front of house (FOH), disrupting the flow of the established menu can be a gamble. Like some customers, some franchisees can be resistant to change in their routines and reluctant to work around the additions. Once again, being open and honest with them about the purpose of the new menu items is the easiest way to gain acceptance. Is this item meant to keep the menu fresh and draw in more customers? Let your employees know.

Incorporating seasonal menu items gives your restaurant the opportunity to reap year-round benefits. The opportunity to actively engage your customers in the menu-making process, avoid menu fatigue and test new items far outweighs any hurdles that may arise. Being open and communicating with both guests and your staff will be the key to maximizing exciting additions to your menu.

Lisa Odom, the vice president of operations at Nature’s Table, began her career with the brand in 1992 at a location in downtown Orlando, Florida. Odom is the driving force behind the design and construction of new locations as well as the conversion of existing spaces. She also oversees the Operations Team and is an integral part of research and development of new menu items and equipment upgrades, always seeking to improve Nature’s Table’s operations and make them more efficient.
Menu Innovations, Outside Insights, Story