Menu innovation is a wonderfully dynamic topic but we should all realize that it does not have to be complicated.
Let's say a restaurant features an offering with one main carrier (bread, wrap, bowl or pizza, etc.), with four menu toppings plus a protein as an option. If the restaurant allows customers to choose from among 20 toppings and 3 protein types, the possible combinations for this single menu item is nearly 350,000. So if you add 1 more carrier or protein, the total number of combinations basically doubles. As difficult as this may be to believe, the math will support this fact. See how easy menu innovation can be? Subway and Wendy's are great examples of menu innovation driven by simple menu component changes.
Sometimes menu innovation includes having components that require culinary staff to cook and manage hot through the process, requiring the development of a product management system. Some concepts will refer to this as a product holding system, but I'd rather call it a product transfer system. What is the difference between the two?
I define holding as storing cooked product based on anticipated sales expectations for a given period of time. The product transferring process, in contrast, makes specific ingredients ready just in time for use. In the first one, you can say that you are parking products, waiting for use, while the latter is more like going through a toll where there may be a small stop but not an extended stay.
To develop an accurate product transferring system, one that properly supports customer service and menu innovation, it is important to weigh many operational factors, including:
- Cooking time
- Assembly times
- Product mix
- Product quality (degradation after cooked)
- Risk of product shortages
- Cost of wasting the product
- Sales forecast
One tried and true way to optimally develop a product transfer system is to apply some of the industrial engineering-based analytical techniques, including those that are founded on "lean production" and just-in-time delivery. Following this process can help restaurant concepts refrain from negatively affecting service or labor while implementing menu innovation.
Some concepts get very concerned with pre-cooking, due to the affect it can have on the marketing promise and the product quality. "We don't start cooking until you order it" may be an operational procedure in place to drive perceived and real product quality. Think about it, though, freshness comes from being able to finish the product just-in-time, after the customer has ordered it. Freshness has less to do with when a restaurant starts the cooking process.
Fresh off the grill/fryer/steamer, or other pieces of equipment, focuses on when the item finishes the cooking process in relation to when the customer ordered it. Think about this. An extension of this principle is rooted in the sous vide cooking process and principles, where the product is almost completely cooked in a vacuum sealed package for long periods of time, and finished or just-served when it is ordered, maintaining fully the quality of the product. Some chefs will argue that this process will deliver a better and more consistent quality, a concept that I fully buy into.
To facilitate "fresh-off-the-grill" product, develop an analytical methodology that allows the culinary staff to start the process before the customer actually orders and has the menu item exiting the cooking cycle "just-in-time" for order fulfillment. Following this process can provide much faster service, saving part of the cooking time, while maintaining quality. This principle applies to all menu and service categories (e.g. quick serve, fast casual, casual dine/full serve).
Most consumer research studies show that "post order times" are just as critical as pre order ones; perhaps even more so when it comes to the perceived experience with the customers, since it happens after they have ordered. While looking at a line in a restaurant, customers can usually predict when they will experience a delay. But wait times after ordering are difficult to predict by customers and often very frustrating. Here is an exercise for you. Wait one minute in three different places and compare this experience to waiting three minutes in the same place. Same total time, but a completely different experience for the customer. The latter is usually much more frustrating.
So what can restaurants do? First restaurants should become more analytical in the way they run their production systems, starting with an objective understanding of where the delays happen, and developing product cooking and transfer systems to minimize post order delays. With this information in hand, restaurants can then leverage the appropriate operating parameter to deliver better customer service and product quality while implementing menu innovation that can help sales growth. We call this "efficient menu innovation"!
Equipment and technology applications play a significant role in enabling the latter goal. A perfect example of how technology can drive menu innovation in a very significant way is the McCafe program. This initiative basically created a new business for McDonalds.