As guests evolve and adopt different eating habits, restaurant operators are best served to monitor trends closely and then innovate their offerings to meet consumer needs.
A nationwide movement toward healthier eating is forcing restaurants and their suppliers to tweak their strategies and mix in new ingredients, according to experts on a panel at the recent National Restaurant Association show titled, “Winning Through Food: How Food Innovation Has Become Top Restaurant Companies' Weapon Of Choice.”
“Innovation is doing something you haven’t seen before or doing something that hasn’t been done that way before,” said Greg Dollarhyde, c.e.o. of Veggie Grill, a chain of fast-casual restaurants based in Santa Monica, CA, that offers a 100 percent plant-based menu. “Imagine trying to make craveable food 100 percent out of plants—no mayonnaise, no eggs, nothing.”
Before Veggie Grill, Dollarhyde worked with T.G.I. Friday’s, where he said the chain began serving potato skins before any other restaurant was doing potato skins. Friday’s also added fajitas early on, which Dollarhyde said led to a Tex-Mex trend nationwide.
“Innovation can start whole industries,” he said. “For example, yogurt recently was re-innovated. Was the yogurt that much better? Sort of, but the innovation came from doing it fresher.”
At Donatos Pizza, innovation is used to ensure the 150-unit company stays consistent with its product. Jane Grote Abell, chairwoman of the board at Donatos, said her father invented a device to ensure pepperoni is cut at the exact same thickness each time.
“How do you keep the quality the same so the customer has same experience again and again?” Abell asked.
A big challenge the panelist said the industry faces is determining how far out to look when measuring trends. While it’s important to stay nimble and tweak menus to adapt, it’s also critical for restaurants to have a long-term strategy of between five and 10 years, Abell said.
For example, Donatos is latching on to the current bacon craze by promoting bacon as a topping and including it in more menu items. But at the same time they are acknowledging the overall healthy eating trend and are serving a gluten-free “take and bake” pizza as well as setting a goal to reduce the amount of sodium in Donatos products.
“Our five-year strategic plan is to make sure we are doing things to make our products healthier for consumers,” Abell said. “I want my kids to eat our pizza and feel healthy about it.”
At Jamba Juice, innovation goes past the food menu and into all areas of the 800-unit company, according to chief innovation officer Susan Shields. Jamba Juice recently held a company-wide innovation challenge fair where each department presented ways to meet customer needs better, faster or more completely.
Shields said Jamba Juice typically looks out about two years when monitoring trends. Recently, the company noticed a rising popularity of coconut water and a general trend toward healthy “mocktails.” So it introduced a pina colada coconut fruit refresher “that is taking off,” Shields said.
“We had to order more coconut water,” she said. “We were listening to the consumer and were nimble enough to adapt.”
Dollarhyde suggested restaurant operators extend their innovation to their supply partners and allow partners to do some of the improving as well.
“There is a lot of innovation going on in plant-based foods," he said, including "an amazing almond milk-based brie."
“Let your manufacturer do your innovating for you,” Dollarhyde advised.