How To Talk To Menu R&D Professionals

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Originally printed in the July 2018 issue of Produce Business.

If you’re attending the 2018 PMA Foodservice Conference & Expo in Monterey, CA, you’ll likely meet some menu R&D leaders from national chains and large contract foodservice operations. Talking to these professionals is different from the supply chain and procurement professionals many in produce are familiar with. Their interests and business needs are different.

Menu R&D professionals are the men and women who work with their marketing colleagues to develop the menu strategy for their operation. They look at their brand promise (i.e., who we are and what we mean to our customers), national or regional trends that fit with their brand (e.g., increasing consumer interest in plant-forward or flexitarian eating) and work to develop new menu items.

Developing new menu items is a long, disciplined process. Many start the concept-development process on paper, taking a rough idea for a new menu item, giving it a name and descriptor and then testing it with consumers to assess uniqueness and purchase intent. Is this new item unique to the brand or is this a case of “me, too” marketing? There’s nothing wrong with “me, too” marketing. Consumers loyal to a foodservice brand may wish their favorite restaurant carried something another brand may carry.

But marketers who want a competitive advantage in terms of creating excitement in a category will look for new menu items that are unique. Social media promotion of a unique menu item can provide a lot of free PR for a brand. But more important than uniqueness is purchase intent, which measures the probability that a consumer will buy a new menu item.

If the initial consumer testing is positive, it will move into menu R&D, where the culinary team will test various formulations to determine the right mix of flavor, portion size, value proposition for the target consumer, operational ease (can we execute this concept in our restaurants?), cost, nutrition attributes, vendor partner contributions and many other factors, including discussions with supply chain and procurement to determine if all ingredients can be sourced at a cost and in amounts necessary for success.

Talking to these professionals is different from the supply chain and procurement professionals many in produce are familiar with.

The concept then will move into consumer testing to see how consumers react to a multitude of sensory attributes such as flavor, aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, portion size, packaging or presentation. Feedback from consumers will be used to further refine the new item.

Many restaurant brands will launch new menu items with limited time-offers (LTOs) supported by various marketing campaigns that can include targeted television or radio advertising, online ads, social media campaigns and in-restaurant marketing with signage, menu inserts, promotions on menu boards or team members trained to encourage purchase of the new item.

The marketing team will assess results of the LTO and determine whether the new item should be a recurring LTO (think Shamrock Shakes at McDonald’s), become a permanent menu item or be eliminated from the menu.

Foodservice research companies such as Datassential are an integral part of the testing and evaluation process for regional and national foodservice brands. The company does proprietary work for clients as well as syndicated research reports that are used by menu R&D professionals to gather insights, information and inspiration. A quick Google search of Datassential top-line reports (free if you sign up for its email promotions) reveals a wealth of insights on consumer interest in fruits and vegetables, including the fact that 70 percent of consumers state they are interested in increasing fruit and vegetable intake but aren’t sure how to do so.

Smart menu R&D professionals are using this insight to develop new menu concepts that include fruits and vegetables partnered with other foods that consumers are seeking, such as chicken.
So, what are some conversation starters for these menu R&D professionals? Start by asking them about their brand. What makes their brand unique in the marketplace? What trends are they following closely? What new produce items are they excited about using in their operation? What process do they use to test new menu concepts? Do they test everything in-house or do they use an outside research firm such as Datassential? And finally, how can you be of service to them as they work to develop the new big menu item for their operation?

These professionals don’t want to be sold anything other than ideas and inspiration. But they’d likely welcome a case of a new product to use in their R&D kitchen. And if they like what they receive, they put it into their menu R&D process, and if the new menu item is successful, you’ll then have to go back and talk with their supply chain and procurement team to make sure their distributor is carrying what they want and need.

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, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on Twitter @FarmFlavorFun