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‘Crossover’ is watchword when planning LTOs


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Saladworks considers the seasons when creating menu items, like this Farmhouse salad.

Limited-time offers have been a major traffic boost since even before the hallowed McRib was introduced in 1981, and even before the largely forgotten McFeast was created in 1970.

Driven by the seasons, taste trends and health fads (quinoa anyone?), LTOs offer something unique and give marketers something to talk about. But behind the scenes, the work of creating a new menu item or LTO has become quite scientific and data-heavy.

“Simple is not a word I would use,” said Buffalo Wings & Rings executive chef Elliot Jablonsky.

The 51-unit fast-casual concept prominently features, obviously, chicken wings and onion rings as well as sandwiches, burgers, soups and wraps. It also operates under a fresh-only standard, which complicates supplying the LTOs even further.

He said the process starts with looking at trends. Because of the long development lead-time of six months—which he’s trying to compress to four months—Jablonsky looks to unveil menu items at a specific point in the trend.  

“In between inception and adoption,” said Jablonsky. “We’re not the leader of the pack but we don’t want to be an ankle biter.”

Once he’s found a good possibility from the “mountain of samples” in his office, he brings it to the marketing team to see if it fits with the brand.

“It has to pass three criteria for us: Is it profitable, is it brand appropriate and is it where we want to be on the trend curve,” said Jablonsky, who is still fighting for wasabi.

Once he has the go-ahead, Jablonsky said it’s just a matter of testing the recipe. He has two chances to make a mark, otherwise he moves on to the next possibility.

For winning recipes, like the spring launch of three LTOs dubbed the Santa Fe Scuffle, the Royal Ruckus and Zing of the Ring, it was a mix of trendy ingredients and inspiration from Jablonsky’s fine-dining past.

The popular Sriracha sauce, French curry spices and classic Southwest were all added to onion rings. And each new ring flavor was paired with a classic flavor. He said to get the 2 to 3 percent sales lift from their LTOs, it helps to pair novel items with classic flavors.

Buffalo Wings & Rings

Garlic-Q Wings is one offering by Buffalo Wings & Rings’ head chef Elliot Jablonsky.

“The term I was raised with is crossover. If you give them something familiar they will tend to want to try them,” said Jablonsky. “Be approachable in the title, and be interesting in the details, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

And then there’s the question of sourcing. Since Buffalo Wings & Rings focuses on fresh-only ingredients, a surge in wing prices like the one seen earlier in 2016 can quickly make an LTO developed months ago less profitable.

To that end, Jablonsky said he’s working on more menu items like sandwiches using breast meat for the company’s future LTOs.

Farm to fork

At Saladworks, there is a similar concern, but the largely “farm-to-fork” fast-casual restaurant has to factor in seasonality when developing new menu items.

Executive chef Andy Revella said it’s a blessing and a curse. The product tastes the best when it’s at its peak, but that doesn’t last long. And in the Northeast where the brand counts the majority of its more than 100 restaurants, it’s especially difficult.

“It goes without saying, when you talk about going farm to fork, produce isn’t grown up in the Northeast 12 months a year,” said Revella, who said seasons mean their development and LTO window is very short.

“We do it in two month segments to see what’s at its peak. Then you have those items that you can choose from and then see what can go together,” he said. “It’s recognition of when something is going to be at its peak of local availability, we should highlight that. They taste the best and it’s a great way for the consumer to eat seasonally available fruits and vegetables at the peak of freshness, and an opportunity for us to source locally.”

When ingredients converge in seasonality, they’re ripe to explore as a menu item or LTO as well. When apples are harvested in the fall, for example, they are paired with the readily available squashes and root vegetables.

Revella, who joined after the brand emerged from bankruptcy protection in June of 2015, said apart from getting every ancient grain he can, he’s focused on making the concept’s menu more complex, especially the LTOs. It’s a conscious move to attract customers to the brand’s chef-inspired options instead of “the regular” made up from the various ingredients always on hand.

To keep up with the complexity of flavor and the confluence of in-season vegetables, Saladworks has a rolling full-year calendar of LTOs, and to keep it on trend, he visits grocery stores and college campuses to see what’s attractive.

“That’s work that can’t be static. You’ve got to be looking at the marketplace and the calendar to find the best ingredients you can find,” said Revella.

To make the salad-heavy concept a more-attractive option, Revella said he’s looking for complex flavors that are on trend, not just sweet and spice.

When creating the Aloha Ginger Salad, toasted pineapple, Asian-marinated steak and trendy snap peas were combined with a barbecue ginger dressing. But the salad had to work in the company’s unique cooking infrastructure based on an Alto Sham automated oven. “The No. 1 hurdle is that everything you put up is operationally feasible,” said Revella.

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