In the world of fine dining, there’s no substitute for a great everyday menu. But I’ve rarely walked into a higher-end restaurant without asking about the special of the day, even if I’ve never eaten there before. It’s a strange impulse, because really, if you think about it, when you’re at a restaurant for the first time, everything is special. Yet I pose the question to my server almost without fail.
The daily special serves a number of important functions in the restaurant ecosystem. For one, it offers an opportunity for chefs de cuisine to experiment with new ideas and get instant consumer feedback without convening a focus group or tasting panel. Restaurants also use specials to create a little novelty that drives visits from longstanding customers and perhaps even persuades skeptics to give the place a try. Often, freshness is the draw: seasonal fruits and vegetables, locally caught fish, locally raised meat, locally grown grains. The promise of a dish customized to highlight ingredients that just aren’t available day-in and day-out is a powerful lure. Properly executed, such specials can be a powerful tool in the chef’s arsenal—or the marketer’s.
In the fast-food and fast-casual worlds, the equivalent of the daily special is the limited-time offer, or LTO. These days, with media channels growing in number and type, and with smartphones and tablets ubiquitous, capturing even a sliver of consumers’ ever-shorter attention spans is a far more challenging feat than it once was. Growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s as I did, it wasn’t terribly hard to get our attention. We had three networks, the daily newspaper, and maybe a weekly newsmagazine or two—print only, of course. There were only so many ways to reach us. An amusing billboard, print ad, TV ad, or radio spot was all it took.
Fast-forward to 2018, when getting on consumers’ radars is harder than ever. LTOs help chains create a little stir, a little novelty, a little buzz to cut through the noise and clutter. Here are some thoughts on ways to craft LTOs that can make a real impact.
Follow the seasons (or create your own reasons)
In a country where complex global supply chains make most produce available throughout the year, there’s rarely a time when you can’t get whatever you need to create a menu item associated with a particular season.
Still, something primal within us hearkens back to the days when horticultural crops were available only when they were grown locally. That’s why we tend to gravitate toward root-vegetable salads in December, fresh strawberry sorbet in June, and mulled cider in October.
And while it’s never a bad idea to use seasonal flavors as a hook, it’s also possible to create LTOs based on nothing more than your own creativity. McDonald’s can launch its McRib in January or July, and its many loyal fans will beat a path to the Golden Arches without a second thought. McRib season is whenever McDonald’s says it is. The recognition that high-impact LTOs can be their own event, independent of outside factors, is important to bear in mind in considering new product ideas.
Be first to fads
Limited-service chains enjoy a significant advantage over CPG companies when it comes to capitalizing on fads that burn brightly for a short time, as opposed to trends, which tend to have greater staying power. Taco Bell unveils a new LTO about every six weeks or so, while Starbucks has been offering extremely limited-time offers since its Unicorn Frappuccino hit paydirt in 2017.
This ability to conceive, formulate, test, refine, and go to market in as little as one to two months is a timetable CPGs can’t touch, and it points to a tremendous opportunity for chains to innovate around the latest and greatest consumer obsessions. Even if you don’t go quite as far as Sonic (which offered a pickle-juice snow cone slush in response to a surging culinary trend), there’s plenty of room to experiment and test the waters with LTOs that draw on the latest and greatest cultural fixations.
Every brand needs its own distinctive image and cachet to survive in a competitive restaurant marketplace. But sometimes the best way to spark interest in a new limited-time promotion is to tie your fortunes to those of another popular brand or personality.
When White Castle began offering its Impossible Burger sliders, it was capitalizing on the momentum of, and widespread interest in, that meatless patty. Undoubtedly, White Castle could have developed its own competing product, but the company likely wanted to join forces with an up-and-coming brand to speed up the time to market and capitalize on the attention the brand has received for the quality of its product.
Being open to such partnerships would allow chains to feature rotating menus developed by guest chefs, or they could consider partnering with CPG companies to bring outside categories into the quick-serve space, as Taco Bell has done with Doritos.
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