Making The Menu

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One of the main appeals of fast food chains stems from uniformity and the confidence that comes from knowing that regardless of whether you’re in Spokane, Tallahassee or cruising anywhere in between, there will almost always be a restaurant around with a menu you’re familiar with.

But where do those menus come from? Who concocts those recipes and ships them out to stores across the country to follow to the letter and make these all-American meals?

“Most of the ideas for our new food items come from our employees and customers,” says Chuck Barton, director of sales for QuikTrip, discussing the process by which his company develops new sandwiches and snacks for its stores. He says that there is an extensive research and development process in place to gather ideas; ideas which are then graded by an R&D team whose task it is to decide if proposed recipes could be practically, easily done.??

“We have a corporate chef as well as four category managers that manage the process,” Barton says. “And each one specializes in one area – pastries and baked goods, fresh sandwiches, desserts, specialty drinks. But if you count our customers and employees, we have millions of people working on new products.”?

The process is similar at more conventional fast-food chains such as Sonic, which also employs a product innovation team of four members to create and commercialize new recipes, often with the assistance of major partners such as Coca-Cola and Kraft.

Both companies test out their newest products at locations nearest to their corporate centers, where they can keep a closer eye on trends and emergent success – or failure.

Following the initial, small-scale tests, products may be sent back to the culinary team at Sonic for further tweaking, whether that be in how the ingredients are balanced, how the item is cooked, etc.

“We also reach out to our fan club, Sonic Cruisers,” says Matt Schein, senior director of brand marketing at Sonic. “(They) try free Sonic food, give us their opinion and get paid for it, too. It’s a sweet deal for them.

“If a product passes all of these filters and generates sales, then we roll it out across the nation to our 3,600 drive-ins,” says Schein. “The whole process from beginning to end can take anywhere from six months to more than a year.”

For the most part, the process is trial, error, and feedback, where only the most successful recipes get to stick around.

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