PizzaRev customers can be adventurous. They appreciate the 40-plus toppings available and the fact that among them are items like capers, fennel seeds, and three kinds of pepperoni.

When the PizzaRev team sets about creating a limited-time offer, they know excitement is a key factor. That’s why the chain’s seasonal and limited-time offers include pies like the Pesto Primavera, complete with roasted corn, basil pesto, and goat cheese, says Nicholas Eckerman, president, cofounder, and COO of the Los Angeles–based fast casual.

“[Our customers] want something unique and unexpected in our LTOs,” he says. “[They] really, really like to see our seasonal specials. We put a lot of time and energy into them.”

LTOs have been an advertising staple in fast food for decades. Their short-term nature is compelling, says Eckerman, who launched PizzaRev after a career in fine dining, where he saw firsthand how customers gravitated toward evolving menus that reflected changing seasons and ingredients.

Natalie Liu, director of marketing for Texas-based Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes, believes that specials like LTOs strike a critical balance of shiny and new with tried and true. Specials enable restaurants to offer both, which can aid in customer retention.

But today’s fast casuals view LTOs as more than effective marketing strategies; they also see LTOs as a chance to experiment creatively, stay on top of food trends, and build community.

Take Mooyah’s new monthly “Taste to Try” campaign as an example. While not a true LTO because it highlights a burger built with ingredients that are always available, “Taste to Try” is designed to help customers get out of their ordering ruts and have fun experiences. With 23 toppings, three proteins, and three buns on offer, Liu says, Mooyah gives customers more than a million ways to build a burger, but so many options can lead to anxiety.

The debut “Taste to Try” burger was the Double Diablo, a combination of Mooyah’s spiciest ingredients: double patties with bacon, Cholula hot sauce, jalapeños, Pepper Jack, and mayonnaise. It was featured in February, but since “Taste to Try” ingredients are always in stock, customers can continue to order it whenever they please.

When Dog Haus, a Los Angeles–based hot dog fast casual, develops an LTO, it’s an opportunity for the team to stretch their imaginations, says Hagop Giragossian, cofounder and vice president of franchise development. “One of the things that’s challenging is that you’re trying to appeal to people in all walks of life,” Giragossian says. “Although our regular menu is creative, LTOs are an opportunity to push the boundaries of creativity and see what the customer likes.”

Giragossian isn’t exaggerating about pushing boundaries; two of the LTOs Dog Haus has featured are a turducken sausage (made with turkey, duck, and chicken) and a foie gras dog. Giragossian’s personal favorite, the foie gras dog, was a turducken sausage topped with foie gras, butter-toasted hazelnuts, wilted pea greens, and fig relish. Paired with white wine and duck-fat fries, the foie gras dog cost $25, but Dog Haus still sold out in 18 hours (the LTO was slated for seven days).

That kind of response tells Dog Haus a lot about its clientele, Giragossian says. Similarly, PizzaRev’s Eckerman says LTOs can provide powerful insights.

“We’ve seen adventurous tastes be more successful than seasonal but stable trends,” he says. “For example, roasted organic eggplant is seasonal and a cool offering, but our customer is a little more adventurous. They’ve had eggplant before. … Now they want an elevated taste experience.” LTOs that reflect global trends and emerging flavors such as combinations like prosciutto and fig, as well as unexpected toppings like roasted corn or chorizo, have been hugely popular, he adds.

PizzaRev’s approach to developing LTOs and seasonal offerings is highly focused on customer feedback. The specials are planned up to a year in advance and based on the approximately 1,500 customer surveys acquired every quarter, as well as large amounts of data about global and local food trends provided by vendors and consultants. PizzaRev holds R&D sessions six times a year in which the team focuses ideas and conducts taste tests. Potential LTOs are offered in a select restaurant for customers to try. Only then is the yearlong plan—including four seasonal pizzas and possibly month-long LTOs, such as a Thanksgiving turkey pizza—finalized.

Dog Haus’ approach is less formal. “We’re all good friends. A lot of it just comes from talking about what we think would be cool,” Giragossian says. Everything centers on the sausage at Dog Haus. Celebrity chef Adam Gertler has joined the Fast Casual 2.0 as its official würstmacher. He comes up with sausages peppered with innovative ingredients like cheese, whiskey-soaked cranberries, and yams. Toppings are designed specifically for the sausage, followed by marketing campaigns and colorful training videos sent to franchisees.

Liu says that for Mooyah, taste trumps everything. “We want burgers that have a personality to them … but it has to be delicious,” she says. The brand has played around with an all-green St. Patrick’s Day burger for March, but the taste left something to be desired. “That was super fun, but was not going to fly,” Liu laughs. Instead, Mooyah came up with a black bean veggie burger wrapped in iceberg lettuce—a fresh, healthy option for spring.

To develop “Taste to Try” burgers, Mooyah brings together the heads of four departments—marketing, culinary development, purchasing, and operations—to ensure diverse combos with projections that the supply chain can meet.

Because the necessary ingredients are already available in the restaurant, “Taste to Try” is specifically designed to counter the problem of getting special supplies to restaurants nationwide. Acquiring quality produce for an LTO can be a significant challenge for fast casuals. Liu says Mooyah wanted a program that franchisees could enjoy and easily handle, and so far operators have appreciated the simplicity.

But that doesn’t mean traditional LTOs won’t be on the menu sometime in the future. “‘Taste to Try’ provides the shell for that,” she says. “The beauty of this program is that it can grow with us.”>

Consumer Trends, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Story, Dog Haus, Mooyah, PizzaRev