Menu Testing - In Real Time

Menu testing is a vital aspect of any food service business. To attract and maintain customers, restaurants must ensure the menu meets their customers' expectations and is continually evolving with new, innovative choices. Menu R&D should be a creative but efficient process, with the two-part goal of creating value for both the business and the consumer.

As food prices continue to rise, finding ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality is especially urgent. R&D projects can determine how to utilize already available materials and equipment to create new menu items, as well as cutting out unnecessary steps that might be reducing efficiency and wasting money.

However, new menu items will have zero value for the business if its customers are not on board. Customer feedback is an essential aspect of R&D and is at the forefront of the entire process. Consumers are evaluated during the first step when researchers analyze market trends and focus groups to identify what's popular and what's important to consumers. They are evaluated again at the final step when potential new menu items are tested in the restaurant.

Though it can be enormously beneficial, R&D is costly for businesses in terms of hiring professionals and creating testing facilities.

Introducing new menu items can be a financially risky gamble if you're not confident new menu items will be well-received.

Make sure the time, effort, and financial cost is worth it by using a system like ours here at On The Spot to gather feedback directly from customers. Rather than estimating what consumers want through market research analysis, why not eliminate guesswork and save steps by simply asking them directly, in real time?

While you're starting to think of the answers to all these hard questions, here's some more food for thought:

The Small Restaurant Advantage

So, if all this time goes into Menu Testing, why is it that smaller restaurants are usually the ones that have the best new items that really excite you?

There's a small pizza place across from our office building in Boston - they specialize in, well, pizza and there's only about 20 seats in the whole place. But, that doesn't stop them from coming up with a new pizza that will really knock your socks off- using ingredients you didn't think would taste good together and ones that you'd never picture on a pizza.

What's so cool about this place is that they have great food and it'll cost you about as much as a Subway sandwich at lunchtime. So, how do you think they do it?

Thave the advantage of operating with a very small gap between the company and their customers. The time between introducing a new menu item and being able to gauge the customer's approval or lack of enthusiasm is miniscule in comparison to a conventional restaurant chain with many locations all rolling up to a corporate decision maker.

In this highly competitive industry, food is still the most valuable asset in attracting new customers. Bring your customers into the conversations you're having during the menu testing process. Remember that the industry experts you have at the corporate level can't substitute for actual feedback from guests. To your guests it's not all about what hot new ingredient is stirring up chefs in kitchens across America.

Your customers are the only people who can tell you what you're doing right and wrong with a new dish.

And, if you use a location based menu testing platform, you can identify patterns in different markets across the county.

If you don't get close to your customers on a location to location basis, you're losing out on valuable insights that can guide you towards a new approach that will throw the "one size fits all" menu type out the window.

Get accustomed to accepting feedback and critiques of your menu items at the local level- don't worry if the aggregate national data doesn't show much. For example, if customers in Idaho think the new pasta dish is too salty, and customers in Maine think the dish could use a little more salty richness, don't average the two together and decide not to change the dish. Use the local menu testing feedback to better inform the chef and staff at each location how they should adjust the dish to be more appealing to the market where their customers live.

Franchise Examples

Domino's Pizza introduced a successful new pizza recipe in 2009. Tate Dillow, Domino's "Chicken Chef," attributes the success to customer feedback. He suggests, "Find out what's in their heads. We actually asked them and we found out our pizza wasn't good. We had a challenge we needed to fix. Once we did that, we started selling twice as many pizzas as we used to."

Most people would strongly prefer the taste of a fresh, oven-baked pizza made from a local shop over one made of highly processed ingredients. Domino's will always lose to local stores when it comes to taste, and therefore those stores (or the concept of eating at local shops) are major competitors to the brand.

Luckily for Domino's they still have the advantage of their price and convenience- elements of a business that can be standardized for greater returns at a national level. So, you can see that there are different approaches to menu testing based on a restaurant's business model- larger chains that thrive from sales related to low prices and high convenience don't necessarily claim to compete on the taste scale- they make a pizza that's appealing to the majority of consumers and stick with it.

But, if you really want to get the maximum value in menu testing, try taking it down to the local level to help guide the decision making process.

Incorporate R&D questions into the mobile menu testing survey that you already give customers at your restaurant. After they've weighed in on their dining experience, continue the survey with specific questions about what they like and do not like about your menu, as well as more general questions about their personal food preferences.

Your R&D team can use data gathered from customers' responses to come up with new, innovative menu items that you can be sure your customers want - no focus group needed. This allows larger chains to compete with those small, boutique restaurant concepts- being in touch with the local flavor can make a big difference at the national level too.

During the testing phase, add survey questions regarding the potential new menu items. You'll hear directly from customers about how they liked the items, with valuable feedback on what to improve or whether to scrap the items completely. Keep in mind that adding a new dish to the menu in only the part of the country that responded positively is okay too- use the data you gain from the menu testing process to rationalize the decision at the corporate level.

Conclusion

So, I challenge you to think twice before adopting a one-size fits all menu- when you listen directly to customers on-location you're getting a more accurate idea of what your customers want and what they think of your menu, greatly reducing the risks associated with introducing new menu items and saving significant time and money.

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