Likewise, pushing too much innovation can sometimes disappoint customers. Twice-a-year menu changes can leave some longing for previous mainstays, and new items can be tough sells. Marinari pointed to the brand’s Burrata Cheese & Heirloom Tomato Toast starter. Burrata cheese wasn’t well known in the market and hasn’t proved a top seller.
“We do hear some pushback. A lot of people come to Blue Lemon, and they don’t really know what we do exactly,” Marinari says. “We’re that hybrid between fast food and full-service restaurant.”
For KFC, pushing the boundaries within the chicken category is key to remaining relevant with consumers. But head chef Bob Das says it’s important to balance zanier menu items with the favorites customers have grown to love. “We don’t want something that’s way too far out there,” he says.
He points to the brand’s 2016 introduction of Nashville Hot Chicken as the beginning of recent menu innovations that shook up the category. That item led to other interesting sauces, including Georgia Gold honey mustard barbecue and Pickle Fried Chicken, an item that garnered national media buzz.
Das says his team follows food trends closely and takes quarterly food safaris to see what’s buzzworthy in cities across the country.
“We see what people are eating and what’s trending and see how we can put our KFC spin on it,” he says. But identifying ideas is just the beginning of the process.
KFC’s Chicken & Waffles was in the works for more than a decade before its 2018 debut. While waffle products abound, Das says the brand struggled to find just the right version to pair with the company’s core chicken lineup. That challenge highlights some of the inherent limitations on menu innovations. For KFC, an idea must be bulletproof to make it out of the test kitchen, ensuring that crews in all 4,300 stores can execute its preparation while still mastering the basics, like hand-battering fried chicken each day. And even as KFC has sought to push the envelope and entice new customers with quirky offerings, Das says innovation has been primarily limited around poultry.
“We’re a chicken company first and foremost. That’s where our main focus is,” he says. “For now, we just really want to focus on chicken and doing it right.”
Walter Zuromski, founder, president and culinary director at Chef Services Group, says technological advancements have played a huge role in paving the way for menu innovation in the limited-service category.
New equipment like ventless TurboChef ovens empower brands to prepare items like salmon fillets and lobster tails within just a couple of minutes, he says. And innovative products from manufacturers have sped up prep times for healthier grains like barley, farro, and long-grain rice, allowing operators to put them on limited-service menus.
Consumers continue demanding more sophisticated foods from quick-service operators, he says, requiring many to fold in fine-dining ingredients and techniques. “I think it has to happen,” Zuromski says. “Consumers are asking for it. But they want it fast.”
The funky Cheba Hut brand has always operated outside of the mainstream with its “Toasted” subs, billed as a cure for munchies aimed at a “very specific counter-culture.” But Seth Larsen, chief relationship officer for the 25-unit chain, says the novelty of a marijuana-themed brand draws in customers only once. It takes great food to keep them coming back.
Cheba Hut’s Secret Stash program empowers franchisees to continually offer two locally created off-menu items. That gives customers a feeling that they’re in the know. And it’s been a testing ground for the menu at large.
Team members in Mesa, Arizona, originally concocted the brand’s Skywalker LTO—a sandwich topped with cream cheese, salami, jalapeño, provolone, pineapple, pepperoncini, and hot sauce—as part of that store’s Secret Stash offering before it was rolled out to the entire system.
“That’s a best-seller,” Larsen says. “They have numbers behind it.”
Larsen acknowledges that many consumers are creatures of habit, but Cheba Hut wants to push them outside their comfort zones—a tendency that customers seem to reward. He pointed to a recent Chicken Caesar LTO. The traditional sub tasted “fantastic,” Larsen says, but posted soft sales numbers. The chain’s Grape Ape sandwich, on the other hand, is still proving popular more than a year after it disappeared as an official menu item. That sub is topped with grape jelly, meatballs, bacon, onion, and barbecue sauce.
“That sold a lot better just because people were willing to take a chance on something they can’t typically get at other places,” he says. “Our LTOs are more successful when they’re a little bit off the wall—the crazier the better.”