Developing New Menu Items

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Originally printed in the February 2019 issue of Produce Business.

What does it take to develop a new menu item? In an independent farm-to-fork restaurant, it’s easy to get a new item on the menu. The chef evaluates what’s in season and locally available, uses his or her creativity to develop a name and description, uses ingredient cost to develop a fair price point and then puts it on the menu. In fact, it may not even be printed on a menu. The new item can be presented by service staff and offered the same day as a special.

In chain restaurants with multiple locations, the process takes a lot longer. With a franchise system, it can take even longer. The larger the restaurant chain, the longer it will take. Development by the culinary team is the first step of many. Marketing, supply chain, legal, operations and others — including franchise owners, in some cases — all need to review and approve the new menu item.

Here are some of the issues that need to be evaluated before a new item appears on the menu at a chain restaurant:

1. Does this menu item support our brand? Does it fit with what our core customer expects, or, does this new menu item potentially surprise and delight customers? Big foodservice brands come with certain expectations from the dining public. No brands want to offer a menu item that might conflict with its brand promise. An example of this would be Taco Bell offering an Italian sub. Taco Bell is all about tacos, in every shape and form possible, including tacos made from biscuits, hash browns, even chicken. The company is not about to start offering sandwiches that don’t fit with its brand promise or personality.

2. Can this proposed menu item bring in new diners by preventing or eliminating a so-called veto vote? This veto vote is what happens when a group of diners is deciding where to eat and someone with a certain eating style — such as vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, etc. — vetoes a restaurant because it doesn’t offer anything that fits that diner’s needs.

3. Can this menu item be offered at a price point our consumers will pay? McDonald’s faced challenges with the Fruit and Walnut Salad. Although customers were excited to see fresh fruit offered, most were not willing to pay $4.99 for something they perceived to be a side, not a meal. The salad’s price and size were reduced, but even then, the price point didn’t fit what the core customer was willing to spend.

4. Does this menu item fit within our operational constraints? The Cheesecake Factory makes nearly everything on its menu from scratch within each restaurant. This is unusual in chain restaurants. Most rely on vendor partners to do the cooking; the restaurant kitchen staff are basically heating and/or assembling products and ingredients made in other facilities.

5. How will our customers react to the name, descriptor, photo and price point for this menu item? Foodservice research companies, such as Datassential, evaluate new menu items for clients by asking consumers the following categories of questions:

  • Unbranded Purchase Intent: How likely are you to order this item?
  • Branded Purchase Intent: How likely are you to order this item at this restaurant chain?
  • Uniqueness: How new and different is this item?
  • Frequency: Would you order this item all the time?
  • Draw: Would you visit a restaurant just for this item?
  • Value: Is this menu item a good value at this price?

When Scott Uehlein, vice president of product innovation for Sonic Corporation in Oklahoma City, wanted to offer new limited-time offers (LTOs) for Winter 2019, he and his team started working in January 2018 to evaluate possible concepts. Chili quickly became the focus. The brand already had equity in chili as a topping for hot dogs and burgers. They wanted to create a heartier chili to eat with a spoon, something that would attract diner attention in January when many are looking for better-for-me, lower-calorie options. Here’s what’s on the menu:

Sonic Hearty Chili Bowl: Chunks of beef and a full serving of vegetables, bold seasonings, and served piping hot.

Sonic Loaded Hearty Chili Bowl: Hearty chunks of beef, a full serving of vegetables and bold seasonings, all topped off with Fritos corn chips, shredded cheese and diced onions.

“We didn’t consciously think about offering a full serving of vegetables from the beginning,” said Uehlein. “It was a last-minute ‘a-ha’ moment when we realized if we replaced 10 percent of the beef with mushrooms, we could improve flavor, cut calories and offer a full serving of vegetables from the tomatoes, peppers, onions and mushrooms. Our biggest hurdle was sourcing the mushrooms — diced, frozen mushrooms our manufacturing partner could integrate into our recipe.”

What advice does Uehlein have for the produce industry? “Chefs don’t always think about the power of produce. It takes a conscious effort to focus on using more produce when there are a hundred other issues to consider. Remind us how produce can help improve flavor and reduce calories. Help keep produce top-of-mind with culinary professionals.”


Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the director of The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative and a consultant for the Produce for Better Health Foundation. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller

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