3 Fundamental Questions That Set the Table for a Smart Menu Refresh                  

If there’s any doubt about the growing imperative of menu innovation, one can simply ask the research giants like Technomic that make their living on the constant churn of market trends driving consumerism.

Especially now that Millennials are at the wheel as the market’s largest purchasing segment, consumers are continually looking for new and different in the world of food—even among brands they already know.

That means foodservice operators, like any other business, have to continually evaluate their product offering. But, before taking a hammer and chisel to the menu, it’s worth asking three fundamental questions.

1. How “Innovative” Does My Menu Have to Be?

A million variables can impact the success or failure of a foodservice establishment, but let’s all agree—success begins and ends with the food.

That settled, whether asking this question as, say, a startup wondering how to avoid being part of the 60% that go out of business in the first three years, or a more ambitious entrepreneur with a desire to be a restaurant rock star, the answer is “very.”

Your menu should be very innovative.

The restaurant market is saturated. So, not only are consumers driving demand for new and unusual dining experiences, they have more choices at their disposal to fulfill this demand. Factor in the veritable labor crisis and other foodservice business challenges, and it becomes crystal clear. 

An innovative menu offering is absolutely critical in the effort to stand out and compete.

For the even more ambitious, it’s the only way to dream of reaching that restaurant-rock-star status, where brands are built on innovative ‘signature’ menu ideas—from the QSR kings like McDonald’s with its Big Mac,® to the casual-dining dynamos like Outback Steakhouse and its Bloomin’ Onion,® to the legendary independents like Indianapolis’ St. Elmo’s Steak House and its world-famous shrimp cocktail.

“But, wait. I’m not getting started. I’m more established. And I might even be a Chipotle Mexican Grill, with a hardened, 25-year-old fan base. Do I really want to mess with my menu?”

2. When Does Menu Innovation Encroach on My Brand?

Last year, when Chipotle launched a series of new menu items, it was the first time since the chain began in 1993.

The reason was “‘menu fatigue.’ Some analysts were worried that volumes were peaking . . . (because) its fresh, customizable Mexican cuisine was getting old with customers.” (Fox Business, July 28, 2017.)

Without question, this happens to even the most established brands. But menu innovation isn’t a self-fulfilling success and, unless a brand is in some kind of business tailspin, menu innovation shouldn’t involve earth-moving modifications.

No, changes to the menu should intrigue the fanbase, not alienate it.

In other words, operators must strike the balance between evolving or freshening the menu and protecting the brand.

Results from Chipotle’s menu innovation aren’t in yet, but the chain is doing right by keeping its changes within the scope of Mexican cuisine and Chipotle’s all-natural-ingredient mantra.

Starbucks, on the other hand, recognized where it got off course in this sense when it tested and abandoned an offering of beer and wine to attract an evening crowd.

Starbucks is coffee. And related experiences that surround it.

That’s an enviable brand position to hold, and one that is undermined by menu innovation that takes Starbucks away from its own category. (For more on this subject, check out The Law of Contraction.)

3. Where Should My Menu Innovation Begin?

It’s always worth reaching out to the fanbase on the front end, asking customers what they would want, before investing in new menu development—a move that inspired McDonald’s to finally serve breakfast all day.

This often means learning something invaluable about the brand on a higher level by understanding how it’s perceived in the eyes of the market—which is really all that matters, because your brand lives in your customers’ mind, not yours.

With or without this research, consider the levels of complexity.

Menu innovation can be as simple as introducing a new ingredient, ala the hot sriracha craze, or it can involve bringing a new kitchen procedure online. Or, it can even be as “innovative” as introducing a new daypart.

In any case, it’s important to examine how each impacts ingredient purchasing/inventory, the necessary operational changes and, most often overlooked, the data that will project the sales-and-profit success of the new item.

To that point, explore equipment options to effectively minimize labor that can erode margins, while also minimizing food waste, especially in light of another trending market demand for more root-to-stem and nose-to-tail cooking.

Further, while all this is underway, identify your staple menu items and integrate this menu innovation in with them—not just for the obvious reason on the sales side, or even to protect the brand as explained above, but because of the loss of operational efficiency where your menu gets over-extended, disrupting established kitchen and staff processes.