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Meet four cooks at top of the food chain


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Sometimes it’s try, try again for Ryan Joy, senior director of R&D at Checkers and Rally’s. He tried four or five times to get focus groups to like his Fry Lover burger before it clicked.

“My brain doesn’t really shut down, it’s always thinking about stuff. I wear myself out,” says Elliot Jablonsky. He’s executive chef at Buffalo Wings & Rings, discussing how he comes up with new product ideas for the chain.

Jablonsky is one of four top chefs we interviewed at a variety of chain restaurants, from Captain D’s, the full-service seafood restaurant; to Checkers and Rally’s, the QSR stalwart; to Back Yard Burgers, which features drive-thrus in most restaurants.

Each menu poses unique challenges in the kitchen, and each chef takes a different approach to getting food all the way from idea to plate.

‘Elevating’ wings

Buffalo Wings & Rings’ customers don’t necessarily think much about the food, so long as the beer is cold, the screens are HD and the basic wings—garlic, barbecue and buffalo—are abundant.

“The wings places are driven by the sports dynamic, the screens and all that,” Jablonsky admits. But the same can’t be said for Jablonsky: “I do think it’s important going forward to establish yourself as a more interesting wings place.”

To that end, he’s got a Korean wing on the menu, with hoisin sauce and chili paste, minced scallions and fresh ginger root. “It’s like a flavor explosion,” he says. He’s experimenting with four varieties of what he calls “elevated” wings right now, and will rotate the big hits onto the menu.

Diane Matheson, the chain’s marketing director, constantly sends him pictures or descriptions of food that appeals, and he tries to figure out how to create an item that will fit the restaurant “machine,” but not turn off customers. “You have to be careful not to be so fancy that it’s polarizing to certain guests,” he says.

When he goes out to dinner, “I eat with intent,” he says, mixing items together to see how they taste. “Plus I read a ton. And then if I have an idea I’ll Google it. See what’s out there, extract things from it, and I’ll create a menu idea list,” which is actually a big folder stuffed with thoughts.

He doesn’t mind that customers of chain restaurants likely don’t think much about the people behind the food. “I like the challenge of being able to inject quality into an arena that might not have always put high quality as a requirement,” he says. “When you get a chance to make a burger better, a pizza better, a chicken wing better—it’s limiting in a good way.

“It still has to make sense and fit our price point,” he says. “Look, if I was in New York City, I could put a slice of foie gras on a burger and no one would bat an eye,” he says. But in his world, at Buffalo Wings & Rings, “everybody would just laugh.”

Angela Vega

Angela Vega

Watch for spills

Angela Vega is director of culinary and food safety at Back Yard Burgers, the burger chain based in Nashville with 90 percent of its locations having drive-thrus, and some locations being drive-thru only.

So her challenge is to create a delicious burger with unexpected ingredients that can be ready in 3 ½ minutes—and not spill on her customer’s shirt. Exhibit A is the Farmhouse Burger, her most recent limited-time offer, a third-pound burger with Virginia ham and a fried egg.

“Instead of a delicious, delicious over-easy egg, we have to do that egg a little bit harder. I don’t want anybody wearing the egg on their clothing,” Vega says with a laugh.

Vega recently had “food safety” added to her title, at the insistence of CEO Dave McDougall. “He saw the need. We always are thinking of food safety, but we hadn’t integrated it into the structure.”

The goal is to train all managers and assistant managers and line staff to gain ServSafe certification, the gold standard for restaurant food management. “They teach every element of food safety,” she says.

Her goal: “To make sure our guests get a fantastic product and a safe product. We want to have higher standards than the health department. We want to have squeaky, squeaky clean restaurants.”

She also has to fit her ideas between $5.99 and $7.99, which experience has shown Back Yard customers will pay. She rolls out about seven limited-time offers each year, each lasting for seven or eight weeks. Coming later this year is a half-pound prime rib burger, which will be priced at the higher end of the range.

“It’s definitely not something you’d expect to get in a drive-thru,” she says.

A ‘sweet side’ for Checkers

Ryan Joy is senior director of research and development at Checkers and Rally’s, where in the past eight to 10 years he’s rolled out numerous new ideas. “Just to name a few, I added a whole lineup of chicken wings, and twice now I’ve revamped our whole dessert menu,” he says. Right now the new “sweet side” menu is being tested in Orlando, with items from $1.99 to $2.49, including a stacked sundae for $1.99 that looks promising.

The old dessert menu had many value items, like a dollar cone, and then a few “indulgent” items that cost as much as $4. “For a burger chain to have a $4 dessert when we don’t have a $4 burger, seemed kind of weird,” he says.

Joy’s process “is about 50-50, science and art,” he says, and describes it like this, again using the example of the desserts category. His team will come up with about 30 ideas, “and those are very artsy. Ideation is very heavy culinary, but I do include my brand team,” who comes up with a positioning statement for each item.

Then those 30 positioning statements are put online in front of 3,000 heavy users who “vote” on the items, from most liked to least.  He’ll then take eight of those ideas and show them to consumer focus groups, and about three or four of those make it to tests. “At first it’s very artsy, but then it’s very, very scientific,” he says.

Sometimes it takes persistence to get a product to market, like the Philly cheesesteak burger he wanted to create, about eight years ago: sourdough bread, a hamburger patty with melted Swiss cheese. “I presented it three or four times to focus groups, and it wouldn’t go,” he says.

“The last time I tried, my boss said, ‘are you sure you want to do this again?’ So we did it again and it worked. We launched it, and it was one of our biggest rollouts ever,” he says. The difference, he believes? Customers weren’t ready for it eight years ago, but that changed over time.

But his biggest coup was a burger with the fries between the buns. “I had the same exact experience with our Fry Lover burger. I’m thinking, why wouldn’t people want fries in their burger? I tried four or five times, and people were looking at me like I lost my marbles. And it finally clicked,” he says.

He knows people don’t think much about fast-food chefs. “When me and my cohort staff walks around our office building and we wear our Checkers and Rally’s chef coats, everyone’s surprised. They say, ‘you’re a fast-food restaurant.’ I say yeah, but you know everything we promote, that has to come from somewhere. They’re blown away that we actually have chefs.”

Does that bother him? “It kind of does, yeah,” he says, but he also takes pride in his chain’s reach. “If you saw someone wearing a chef’s coat that said Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse,” no one would question it. “But I’m selling a lot more beef than Ruth’s Chris is. We need innovation to keep the consumer satisfied.”

No room for flops

Jason Henderson is vice president of product innovation at Captain D’s, heading a team of “three chefs and a product innovator that’s more of a food scientist,” he says, helping to get a product scaled up to roll out to restaurants. “We go from scratch and then take it to one of our vendors that will run it on a line and make thousands of items.”

Henderson started his career as a seafood broker, he says, but then goes back even further. “As a kid growing up I had a lot of different hobbies, and one that stuck was fish tanks.” He started with a freshwater fish tank, moved on to saltwater.

“When that got boring we would go out to the Southern states, where farmers went to buy bass to stock their ponds. I’m not sure how technically legal this was, but we tried to raise bass and things in a home aquarium,” with an eye toward turning a profit, he says with a laugh.

The hobby eventually turned into a degree in wildlife and fisheries management from Virginia Tech, followed by stints in New York and abroad. “I spent a few years in Germany getting that European cooking experience that most of us culinarians crave,” he says.

Today, at Captain D’s, he relies on a rigorous process to get food from idea to plate. “Most chefs can create really great-tasting dishes. Where this role takes a unique talent is being able to harness all that culinary creativity within a highly disciplined process,” he says.

And the result: “We have never launched an item that failed,” he claims.

He uses crab bites as an example, a tiny crab cake inspired by the fact that regular-sized crab cakes are popular at Captain D’s, and customers often come in pairs or groups who want to share. To develop it or any other item, his team creates a plate of food and photographs it, and proposes different price points to D’s club members, people who are frequent guests at the restaurants.

The next step is a taste test in a store, where trained personnel will intercept guests and offer them a taste and record the scores. Then housekeeping tests are run, to check for all the unknowns, like a product that uses the same cook basket as another item and thus takes too much time.

Market tests follow, complete with a prime-time television campaign in that individual city. “It lets us know in a real-world scenario, what would happen,” he says.

Then the scaling up begins, with vendor partners that can create recipes in very large volumes. “Any time you scale a recipe, a lot of times the math just doesn’t work,” he explains. “If it’s a pound of crab meat in a kitchen, and you just scale it up to 1,000 pounds, your spices, your sodium levels, all have to be adjusted.”

In the case of the crab bites, and getting them to 530 restaurants, the numbers are notable: The bites weigh ¾ ounce each, and Captain D’s analytics department estimates they will sell well over 200,000 pounds of them during this promotion window.

Behind all the steps is an idea he holds firm: “The guest really knows,” Henderson says, and the trick is for all the executives and chefs and r&d people to put their own ideas aside in favor of the customers’—not necessarily easy for culinary experts who take pride in their work.

“We’ll sit around and taste the products together, and we’ll definitely have opinions of what would fare better,” he says. “A lot of times we’re right but sometimes we’re wrong, and when we’re wrong it’s because the guest tells us so.

“The biggest lesson, especially here at Captain D’s, is you have to let the guest speak,” he says.

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