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    Inside the Test Kitchen

  • R&D experts from around the industry pull back the curtain on how they perfect their signature menu items.

    noodles & co.
    Noodles & Co. chef Tessa Stamper works in a test kitchen at the company’s headquarters that is designed like an average Noodles restaurant.

    “If you think about the Taco Bell consumer and how much they love Taco Bell, and you think about Doritos lovers and how much they love that brand, if you don’t get it right, they call you out,” she says.

    Lucky for Matthews, the Taco Bell test kitchen is flush with resources for successful product development. She says the entire second floor of Taco Bell’s headquarters is committed to food, and includes laboratories for sensory analysis, kitchens for both food and beverage testing, and four different areas designed to reflect actual Taco Bell restaurants. The culinary team has about 40 dedicated employees.

    Tessa Stamper’s development team isn’t quite that big. But the registered dietician and head chef at Noodles & Co. does have a test kitchen at headquarters with all of the same equipment as the average Noodles kitchen, where she says she and her team will plow through “countless iterations” of possible new menu items.

    “We will start out with some dishes and flavor profiles and go through sort of a process of elimination, if you will, with some of our dishes that ultimately our guests are going to have to really like,” Stamper says. “But they also have to fit this broader puzzle, and the pieces of that puzzle include things like our throughput requirements, our equipment capabilities, our team member ability to execute the dishes we come up with, making sure supply chain is able to source ingredients that we want. If any of those pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together, the dish won’t work.”

    Of course, the food also has to taste good.

    Step 3: Testing

    It would be an understatement to say Veggie Grill items have to be vetted before landing on the permanent menu at each of the company’s 19 units. White says that once he’s satisfied with a product, it goes through the CEO, operating partners, board of advisers, C-suite, and focus group before it can be approved as a an addition to the menu.

    “We have what we call the ‘80/20 Rule,’” White says. “We’ve learned over the last seven years that you just can’t take things on and off the menu just because you think you need to put something else on. It creates such a firestorm. … Our 80/20 Rule is we go to the focus group, [and] if 80 percent of them say yeah, we like it, then that can be a menu change for us. Then usually we pick two different restaurants in kind of diverse areas, and we run it for about a month and try it.”

    If at any point a dish fails the 80/20 Rule, he says, it’s back to the drawing board, where he might tweak the dish or start over completely.

    Smith also consults with his executive team before proceeding further into tests with new menu items.

    “We have a long, stainless steel bench, and our leadership team will stand around, and … we’ll start with ideas, and then we’ll narrow them down,” Smith says. “[I say,] ‘Here are the salads I recommend doing for the summer, and this is how they build, and these are the ingredients they need, and here are the nutritionals, and here are the costs, and these are the implications, and can I take it to test?’”

    At Corner Bakery, Scicchitano works with his marketing department to bring in potential consumers to help verify new products his team has been working on. He says they funnel people in and out, testing things like flavor profiles and spice levels. This process doesn’t just give him valuable consumer insights, but it also helps keep the culinary team grounded. A few years ago, he says, the company wanted to do “big-boy, adult mac and cheese,” with Brie, Smoked Gouda, and blue cheeses. When the test group responded negatively, Scicchitano tried again with common cheeses like Cheddar. The test group loved it.

    “So the consumers right there in front of us in the test kitchen said, ‘Yeah, these are gourmet things you’re working on, but you’ve got to deliver on something that’s basic and comforting,’” he says.

    Other brands filter their new product development through operating partners and franchisees. Taco Bell has a committed section of its test kitchen where it brings in franchisees and gathers feedback on process. Noodles & Co. similarly has a direct line of communication open with its operators.

    “Once a dish is out in the field for certain, we get a lot of feedback from them about how to improve the dish or make it easier from an operational perspective,” Stamper says. “But our managers and folks are out in the field … they’re out there every day with the guests, and they hear a lot more than I hear when I’m here in my test kitchen. So we encourage them to give us as much feedback as possible on what guests are asking for.”

    Once approved internally, nearly every new quick-service product is issued to a test market before it can be approved for a system-wide roll out. All experts interviewed for this story say they look for markets that represent a cross-section of consumers in different parts of the country, if possible.

    For Taco Bell, this helps assuage any doubts about riskier menu propositions, like its Cantina Bell menu.

    “We tested that, we validated, we worked with our agency partners to create the advertising that would bring it to life,” says Taco Bell’s Lynch. “Our model is, we go into a test market and buy up the local media, we put the products into those restaurants, we put the [point-of-purchase materials] up in those stores, we listen to what our customers tell us.”

    Step 4: Menu

    The craziest turnaround Noodles & Co. ever made with a new menu item, Stamper says, was about 48 hours. The company was launching a new fruit salad, and on the eve of its roll out, operators reported back to corporate that its strawberries weren’t up to snuff. So the culinary team found a Fuji apple replacement, recorded preparation directions with an iPhone, and made the switch.

    “You have to be quite nimble in your development,” Stamper says. “It really depends on the item. We recently just added a naturally raised, slow-braised pork to our menu. It’s the first time that we’ve had pork on the menu, and that development time frame took a long time because we had not only a flavor and texture profile that we’re looking for, but we wanted to source it naturally raised. So that took well over a year.”

    Most product development takes closer to a year than 48 hours, the R&D chiefs report. Smith says Bruegger’s development process can take about six months; at Corner Bakery, Scicchitano says, it takes about 13–21 weeks to get something from the test kitchen to the menu.

    But the development process can be ongoing. For example, Scicchitano says Corner Bakery is about to take a signature product off the menu to retool it. And Lynch says Taco Bell will continue to develop around the foundations established by the Doritos Locos Taco and the Cantina Bell menu.

    “We’ve got a whole pipeline of [Doritos Locos Taco] flavors that we’re continuing to explore and validate,” he says. “The ideas continue to live and breathe.”

    Perhaps the best news for chefs across the quick-service industry is that Americans’ palates are maturing; customers are getting more adventurous. While it might not make the development process any easier, it should at least make it a little bit more creative.

    “The openness is starting, and with that, people are open to trying new things and new culinary adventures,” says Veggie Grill’s White. “But again, it still comes back to the same thing: You’ve got to have good flavor, you’ve got to have good food. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing; if you don’t have good food, it’s not going to work.”