Secret Weapon

A while ago I was in LA on a Discovery Tour and visited a haute hotdog concept called Slaw Dogs. The line-up of builds was impressive. They had dozens of variations from a Hotdog Rueben to a Breakfast Dog, but most impressive was when they brought out their ‘Secret Menu’ for two women who were undecided about what they wanted. How fun.

Weeks later I went to PF Chang’s with my sister and brother-in-law who ordered an off menu item—Chang’s Shrimp which had been taken off the menu years before. Since being deleted, it is now a ‘secret’ that those in the know could order. My brother-in-law told me, “They make it for me.” He loves having the ‘inside scoop.’ It made him a huge PF Chang’s fan, and the fact that he could tell me about it absolutely made his day.  And that’s the point…Secret Menus make guests feel good because they get what they want and feel like they’re getting special treatment.

But secret menus are also good for restaurants. Having headed up marketing for several restaurant chains, I know how tough menu development can be…especially when staying on trend with new items means you have to let go of old established items to keep the total size of the menu down to an executable level.

I read research a long time ago that the single biggest reason people stop going to their favorite restaurant is because the restaurant deleted their favorite item. I’ve been convinced of that over the years as focus groups have told me the same story of abandoning a restaurant because their favorite item had been 86’ed.  That’s why restaurant chains, like the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group where I was Chief Marketing Officer, keep recipes, server training materials and POS keys for deleted items so that if guests request a deleted item they can still make the item for them like Bravo’s Shrimp Fra Diavolo. It’s really a win-win. The guest gets what he wants because the restaurant has the infrastructure in place to do it without taking up valuable menu real estate.

And it’s not just deleted menu items that find their way to a secret menu. Often, secret menus include items that solve a guest problem—nutritional or otherwise. Someone told me if I was too late for breakfast at McDonald’s I could ask for a Mc10:30. (To test the theory, the other day I asked my local McDonald’s if they had heard of the Mc10:35 and the cashier said to me, “I wish!” implying that even though their location didn’t serve it, it would be a great idea and would make her and a lot of her customers very happy.)

Secret Menus cater to the undecided, to the health conscious, to the picky eaters and to the spurge market.

  • The Undecided—just like Slaw Dogs, some build-your-own concepts like Neopolitan pizza place 800 Degrees offer suggestions for great combinations…this can really help expedite the ordering process and lower the anxiety level for indecisive patrons
  • The Dietary Conscious—Panera Bread in deference to their low carb customers has recently launched a Hidden Menu with power protein bowls for breakfast and protein options at lunch, Popyeye’s offers their sandwiches ‘Naked’ without the battering and In N Out Burger offers their burger ‘Protein Style’ wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun
  • The Just Plain Picky Eaters—A picky eater friend of mine is executive vice president of a great chain of restaurants in New Orleans. To accommodate her preference for no sauces, the chain instituted a special register key just for her that is now commonly used for anyone who prefers simpler presentations.  I happen to hate burritos, but I just found out that Chipotle will make my chosen ingredients into a quesadilla instead of a burrito if I just ask—that’s all the incentive I need to go back
  • The Spurge Market— McDonald’s Pie McFlurry is where you can buy a Baked Apple Pie and a McFlurry and have them blended together, Wendy’s offers a Grand Slam with 4 burgers, and In N Out’s 4×4 includes 4 burgers and 4 slices of cheese, but legend has it that they once served a 100×100! (NOTE: A side benefit of keeping these items off menu is that their calorie counts stay off menu too.)  Some things are better left a secret!

 

What all of these Hidden Menus, Secret Menus and Not-So-Secret menus suggest is that great operators are finding inventive ways to give customers exactly what they want while insuring the consistency and execution their customers demand.  For chains that can’t devote valuable menu space to items that only have limited appeal, but that want customers seeking esoteric items to know that they are available, secret menus are a great option. For chain operators to simplify the complicated ordering process of picky customers and to maintain consistency on even quirky orders, secret menus allow restaurants to do so. To build deeper relationships and an insider feeling among customers that can spur them to share via social media, Secret Menus are the perfect tool. In fact, in today’s intensely competitive battle for market share, a secret menu can be a real Secret Weapon.

Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What’s in a Name?

Recently, I participated in an interview for an LA Times article on menu names. Here are my top ten thoughts on, ‘What’s in a name?’
1. Do you consider menu naming serious business?
Naming is really important for two main reasons, first, to encourage ordering of menu items, and second to set the right expectation about the menu item. In research I did for a new start up, an item called ‘Jerk Chicken Sandwich’ set customer expectations of a hot, spicy item whereas the item itself was very mild. Customers who ordered it in our test focus groups were very disappointed because they ordered what they were led to believe was spicy and it wasn’t. They were disappointed because the name was misleading. Naming items well so that they create realistic expectations can increase customer satisfaction—that’s serious business.

2. Are menu names based on research?
Large companies, particularly fast food chains with franchisees that have high expectations for menu item performance, research menu names extensively. The also do what they call ‘product concept positioning.’ They ask, ‘is the concept right for the brand and is the name right for the concept?’ Small, entrepreneurial companies are a little less strategic about it. They will sometimes do informal research but they don’t usually test names formally.

3. Are menu names really important in helping to sell food?
Names are really impogarbagertant and can make or break menu item sales.
□ When Max & Erma’s Restaurants years ago introduced a smaller, less expensive burger, we wanted to discourage ordering because it would have cannibalized our larger, more profitable burger, so we named it the ‘Erma’ Burger and experienced far less cannibalization than projected. The more feminine name discouraged ordering by some men and gave us the result we needed—offering a more appealing size, but not compromising profitability.
□ The uniqueness of the name especially if it’s easy to remember and distinctive can also encourage word of mouth. Ignite! a restaurant client of mine in Carlsbad, CA offers an appetizer called ‘Man Candy’, maple glazed bacon with chili flakes. It’s a great happy hour item, easy to remember, distinctive, really on-brand and helps create word of mouth.

4. Does research show certain words that work better than others?
□ Words that refer to appealing cooking methods like ‘grilled, roasted, braised, fire roasted’
□ Words that promise freshness like ‘farm-fresh’ or ‘fresh cracked egg’ or ‘made to order’ ‘freshly made’
□ Words that promise healthy food or ingredients with integrity like ‘free range’ or ‘natural’ or ‘grass fed’ or ‘organic’
□ Words that romance premium ingredients like ‘Belgian chocolate’ or ‘applewood smoked bacon’—research shows that people equate quality ingredients with quality taste
□ Words that romance the flavors like ‘cilantro-lime rice’, ‘ancho-braised’ or ‘triple thick hot fudge’ and ‘vanilla bean sauce.’ This kind of name can literally generate craving.

5. Are menu names a type of branding?
Menu names manifest the brand ‘voice’ in action. Every brand has a brand personality, and smart companies use that personality to work for them by developing their ‘brand voice’ and using that voice to tell the story on the menu and in all their messaging.
The brand ‘voice’ might be edgy or funny or whacky or outrageous depending on the overall brand positioning. Names with a lot of attitude and personality are in sync with the brand and draw people to them…the more personality the better.

6. Do guests really respond to specific names? If so why and how?
Guests really respond to names that are targeted to their interests. Of course, verbiage might be lost on people that can’t relate to it (vegetarians couldn’t care less about Nueske’s award-winning ham, but carnivores may be equally unimpressed by spring lettuces). Specificity allows customers to relate in a more personal way like with the name “Skinny Margarita.”

7. What makes some names stick?
Simple, distinctive, easy to remember names can really stick. IHOP’s Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity and the Whopper have lasted for decades for that reason. Max & Erma’s Garbage Burger has been around since the 70’s and deserts like the Lindey’s Post Mortem and PF Chang’s Great Wall of Chocolate are distinctive, simple, peak the imagination and have really managed to stick.pf-changs-great-wall-of-chocolate-cake-01

8. Are there menu-naming trends?
Restaurants are getting better about capitalizing on their brand voice and leveraging it into more unique, interesting and sometimes outrageous names. Beyond that there are several tends:
□ One trend which is somewhat of a chef-driven trend is naming by listing major ingredients. Chefs don’t really like flowery, contrived names.
□ Another is making quality statements rather than hyperbolic flavor claims about.
□ Another is the shock factor going for irreverent or edgy, names.

9. Are courses offered that teach menu naming?
There are none that I am aware of, but the upcoming Marketing Executives Group Spring Conference in Chicago at the Westin Hotel on May will feature a session called “Finding your Voice” by branding expert Adrienne Weiss who helped develop WaterTower Plaza’s original FOOD LIFE and the new LYFE Kitchen brand as well as rebranding Baskin Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts.

10. What are your thoughts about menu naming?
The main goal in menu naming is influencing people ordering the item. The one caveat from my years of doing customer menu research is that customers often order items by the item name. In other words, they read the name to the server. If it’s long or difficult or embarrassing to pronounce, it can be a barrier to purchase. Using long Italian (or French, or Spanish, etc.) names may cause customers to stumble over the name and perhaps be embarrassed. In some cases, they either point to the item or truncate the name or pick another item altogether. (They are out with friends for a nice meal…they don’t really want to be embarrassed placing their order.)

If a restaurant wants to sell something, they need to build in enough personality to draw guests to it and avoid the barriers that will slow guests down from picking it.
Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Which Half is Which?

Advertising: Which Half is Which?
By now everyone has heard the saying, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Most people attribute it to a friend or business associate, but the comment was originally made by retailer John Wanamaker, a marketing pioneer in the early 1900’s. I guess the reverse is also true…half of the money we spend isn’t wasted…it actually generates a return on investment (ROI) that builds sales and builds the brand. The real question is—how do you know which half is which?
• I just visited PF Chang’s for the first time in a long time. What made me do it? I saw their “20 Lunch Combos for Under $10” TV spot. After seeing it enough, I just had to go. But I didn’t go for lunch; I went for dinner. In other words, the advertising moved me even though I didn’t go for the deal. The PF Chang’s spots do a great job of making the case for the brand and the product and use the ‘deal’ to merely ‘punctuate’ the ad, not as its centerpiece. It’s not about the deal…it’s about the brand, with a big coupon exclamation point at the end of the sentence.
It reminded me that years ago I read that including a coupon in an ad increases readership by 90% (almost double) even if people don’t redeem the coupon. This makes sense…especially when you consider that redemption rates on coupons average 1-2% and are often redeemed at a rate of less under 10%. People are paying attention to the ad and responding to it, even if their ‘response’ is a non-coupon visit. I recently spoke with PF Chang’s president who confirmed that they have experienced lift at both dinner and lunch because of this promotion.
Lesson: the law of ‘unintended consequences” can also work in your favor. Be sure to factor that into your ROI.
• Having recently been at a board meeting discussion where the accountants looked at 5-10% coupon redemption rates as modest and questioned whether it was ‘worth doing.’ Interestingly enough, there was a positive ROI on the promotion, but the accountants questioned whether they might have gotten an even higher ROI doing something else…the grass is always greener. My take on this is that the ROI is the low end of what the promotion achieved when you consider the overall awareness it produced and the energy level it created in the restaurants during what would otherwise be a slow time ) like PF Chang’s). And all we know the best promotion is a busy restaurant.
Lesson: Don’t be distracted by someone else’s green lawn.
• Advertising is like the pill you take to make the symptoms go away. Once the symptoms have gone away, you might think you are fine and decide you don’t need the pill. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a “Cumulative Effect of Advertising”—a number of years ago it was found that only 60% of the impact of an advertising initiative is felt in the first year, 25% is felt in year two, 10% in year three and 5% in year four. If you keep advertising year after year, it will build and build until year 4 where you will finally realize 100% of the benefit of the campaign. If you do the same thing the next year, you will get the same 100%. This will make it appear that sales have flattened, but the truth is that the base has moved. A certain level of marketing simply ratchets up the base.
Lesson: Stopping your advertising loses the residual impact and sets you back years building sales. Ultimately, you need to “up the ante” to get bigger impact. Stops and starts rather than a consistent year after year approach leaves money on the table because of the lost impact.
• Reach & Frequency, the traditional measures of advertising in a mass media world, are giving way to Impact & Engagement, the watchwords in a social media world. It’s not an either-or choice. A full marketing approach includes both Reach & Frequency and Impact & Engagement. Anecdotal information that reflects how much powerfully guests respond to your brand is almost as meaningful now as the ROI.
Lesson: Advertising that doesn’t Reach enough people, doesn’t reach them Frequently enough, doesn’t have Impact or is not Engaging, is probably in the half of your advertising that doesn’t work.
• The expression “Go Big or Stay at Home” is as true of marketing as it is in general. Not spending enough may just cause a promotion to fail whereas a little more money would give the program enough to break through and be a success. Years ago, I tested two ad campaigns. One featured a “buy one, get one free” coupon and the other featured “buy one, get one for a dollar” coupon. Our managers thought they would save a lot of money not having such a high coupon cost, when in fact, the number of people coming in for the less compelling deal was so much lower, it didn’t even generate enough revenue to pay for the ad whereas the BOGO with the free offer actually generated a lot of traffic and made lots of money.
Lesson: Go Big or Stay at Home.
So here are my simple rules:
1. It’s important to measure sales gains not only against last year, but also against a realistic assumption of what sales would be if you had done nothing. Ask, for example how your competition is doing. If you are doing better than they are, your advertising is working.
2. Make it about the brand, not the deal. People will seek out the deal…you’ve got to expose them to the brand on the way. That gives you impact today and tomorrow.
3. About the time you are getting sick of your advertising, your customers are just beginning to pay attention to it…the promotions that are working are working because you stick to them.
4. Continuously evaluating your efforts and eliminating the things that aren’t working, and doing more of the things that are, will build the half that works and eliminate the half that isn’t.
Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Value is in the Eye of the Beholder

I recently had a columnist interview me about value. Her assumptions were purely financial…getting value by avoiding high mark-up menu items that are low-cost to the restaurant. Frankly, I don’t buy that paradigm. I think that value is in the eye of the beholder.
By that I mean, a simplistic view of menu item prices would be to look at the “cost of goods–food cost as a percentage”…the higher the percentage, the better the value to the consumers. Her example of pasta and eggs (which have a low % food cost) compared to steaks (which typically have higher food cost as a %) would reflect this definition of value. But the truth of the matter is that because steaks have a higher price point than eggs or pastas, customers are paying more gross margin dollars–for a steak than for a pasta dish. So for a smaller total ticket, the steak customer and the pasta customer get the same amount of service and atmosphere, so the pasta purchaser actually gets a better value on the “experience” than the steak customer.
• A steak costing $25 with a food cost percent of 40% has gross margin of $15 versus
• A pasta primavera costing $15 with a food cost percentage of 25% produces a gross margin of $11.25
• ($15 for the experience versus $11.25 for the experience)
The other difference between a steak and a pasta primavera is the labor involved in producing it and the ability of consumers to make it for themselves (given all the ingredients they would have to buy and steps involved in the prep).
• With a steak, a cook would throw it on the grill
• With a pasta dish, there are sauces to prepare and vegetables to chop and more labor intensive work that most people won’t and can’t do for themselves–that’s why they value it.
So, my point is, guests have a more holistic sense of the value of a menu item versus the simplistic calculation of the food cost percentage. The true meaning of VALUE is what’s valuable to them, and they wouldn’t buy it if it didn’t represent a value. That’s why most restaurants try to find a price that covers their costs (labor and food) and represents a good value to their customer because they know if it is not appropriately priced, it won’t sell.
The interviewer asked me, “What tips do you have for diners to choose high-value items when navigating the menu?” My response to her was, ‘If their definition of value is the highest % food cost, then the steaks are the best choice. If they are looking at it as something they wouldn’t be able to make for themselves for that (or any) amount, they should look for signature preparations and proprietary sauces because they couldn’t get those at any cost. Oversized portions are also perceived as a good value because the leftovers can be taken home and would supply an additional meal.
She also asked, “Would you say that opting for 2 or 3 appetizers instead of say, the $30 seafood or steak entree represents a better value meal for the diner?”
I basically told her, it depends on your definition of value. Some customers (young men in particular) gauge value based on how full they are after they have eaten, so fatty items produce that feeling of fullness at a reasonable price. Bone-in chicken also produces that sense of value because it looks like such a big portion.
Finally, she asked, “Can you suggest 2/3 specific dishes that are commonly found on restaurant menus that offer value for the consumer?
• If you use the “it-looks-really-big-for-the-money”definition, a roasted chicken or t-bone steak are good choices.
• If you use the “it-fills-me-up” definition, something cheesy and high carb like lasagna or enchiladas are a good choice.
• If you use the “I-wouldn’t-or-couldn’t-make-this-myself” definition, pick something with a lot of unique ingredients or hard to do prep work like a signature pasta dish or a burger with elaborate toppings or a signature salad with lots of fresh ingredients and a proprietary dressing would be good choices.
• If you use the “How-much-did-it-cost-them-compared-to-the-price” definition, go for the steak!
Especially in the current economic environment, offering great value in any and all of these ways is the cost of doing business.
Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What Can We Learn from the Bronx Cobra?

A 20-inch baby cobra escaped from the reptile house of the Bronx Zoo about a month ago and became an instant news story. OK, it was probably a slow news day, being that it preceded Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations and the capture of Bin Laden, but that only half explains why this event became such a wide-spread story. The other half of the story is great branding. How did it happen…why did it happen…and what can we learn from it?
When a tongue-in-cheek Twitter feed emerged that gave the cobra a personality and a voice, the cobra became a brand and finally a cyber phenom. The cobra had 200,000 Twitter followers in less than a week. But I would argue that it was less about media and more about brand personality that drove the overnight sensation.
The @BronxZoosCobra feed was written in the voice of the Egyptian cobra—a young, sassy, fun-loving female cobra with a cosmopolitan flair that tweeted up-to-the minute updates that piqued our imaginations, allowing us to project our hopes and dreams on her and imagine what we might do if we were free to experience the “Big Apple.”
• “Holding very still in the snake exhibit at the Museum of Natural History,” she posted on Twitter. “This is gonna be hilarious!”

• “I should take in a Broadway show. Anyone heard anything about this ‘Spiderman’ musical?”

• “Leaving Wall Street. These guys make my skin crawl.”

Well, she was finally found…in the zoo: no adventures, no trip to the top the Empire State Building, no Broadway show, and that might have been the end of the story…except for what happened today. A peacock just escaped from the same Bronx Zoo, and, of course, is tweeting:

“The cobra gave me some escape tips.” 

 The cobra’s response? “Seriously, peacock!? We agreed we’d go tomorrow at dawn!”

And so it continues. What ultimately creates resonance, connection and longevity is the power of the idea.
The idea was original…not copycat. The voice seems real…not contrived. The tweets are conversational in tone…not broadcast business messaging. And most importantly, the voice reflects a brand personality that connects on an emotional level.
Not long ago, I worked on a project to develop a personality and “voice” for my client’s social media program. It was smart of them to realize the need for a well-conceived approach to their social media voice by creating a brand personality that could translate to the “voice of the brand” as they engaged in a dialogue with their guests on line. That’s the secret to successful branding strategy—articulating the brand personality and translating the brand personality to the “voice of the brand,” especially important in this age of social media. This voice connects with consumers in a personal and emotional way, and the connection is what allows the brand to transcend its rational attributes (the cobra was, by the way, a venomous snake) and engender loyalty.

Many brands use celebrities to represent their brand personalities—Jeff Bridges for Duracell, Tim Allen for Campbell’s Soup, Queen Latifah for Pizza Hut. As consumers, our radar tells us if they are on target or off target. In 2007, Wanda Sykes was selected as the “voice” of Applebees, and although I thought she was hilarious, she didn’t quite fit the brand.

The lesson to be learned is the importance of creating a relevant, authentic, emotional connection to your customers and the discipline of maintaining a consistent authentic voice that reflects the brand personality. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation
Years ago, I taught high school. To this day, what I miss most about it is Summer Vacation. Think about it. Summer vacation is way better than regular vacation. When you go on regular vacation, the work doesn’t stop, you just get farther and farther behind the longer you’re gone. Not so with summer vacation…with summer vacation, everything stops and you get to enjoy yourself for a few months and then start fresh in the fall. It’s the ultimate “reset button.”
Well, I didn’t exactly get a summer vacation this year, but I did the next best thing. New client projects took me all over the country from San Diego, CA, to Tampa, FL, to Providence, RI, to San Francisco, CA, and a couple of places in between. And I’m happy to report: the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well and (still) living in America. I’ve visited beer pubs, pizza places, good-for-you concepts, gastro pubs…you name it. And if you haven’t gone out for a market immersion like this lately, you are really missing something.
The beauty of these “market immersions” is that, just like summer vacation, it allows you to reset how you think about what’s possible. We visited Tony’s International School of Pizza in San Francisco… home of authentic Neapolitan Style pizza. http://www.internationalschoolofpizza.com/

Tony Gemignani, nine-time World Pizza Champion and the first Master Instructor in the United States, is amazing. He serves five different types of pizza each made in a different type of oven with different flour, different styles, different sauces, etc.
Honestly, it’s amazing. Who knew there were this many types of pizza? It’s like the Eskimos having 11 different names for snow…the more knowledgeable you are in a subject, the more nuance you experience and the more possibilities there are.

There are great entrepreneurs all over the country doing amazing things that will make you say, “Wow… I never thought about that.”
Many companies are completing their plans for next year right about now. Restaurant companies who took time out for a little intellectual “summer vacation” to “reset” their thinking and “jump start” their creative problem solving skills are probably fueled with the power to think about old challenges in new ways. So if you haven’t gotten out for a real market immersion lately, do it soon. I think it will energize you and your team just as it did for me.

Until next time…I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Urban Renewal

I had dinner with a friend last night at a great new little Mexican restaurant, Cabo Cucina. When I met him for dinner a year or so ago, we ate at the same restaurant…well, not actually the same restaurant. It was the same building but a different concept—it was a great little Italian restaurant (the third of three “great little Italian restaurants” which had been in the same space over the last ten years). In this case, the failure was more due to the location than the economy because the site has its challenges. However, over the last year or so, many great little restaurants and even great restaurant brands have gone by the wayside in this economic downturn. Read More »

Drive By

I was on a conference call the other day where we discussed whether we needed valet parking for a new project that was a little thin on dedicated parking spaces. The price tag for valet parking is a little daunting when number crunching an initial pro forma, so it sometimes falls by the wayside when push comes to shove. I had a little déjà vu moment as I realized how many times I’ve had this conversation over the years, but here is what I’ve learned: It’s not about the number of parking spaces…it’s about the perceived parking.

Read More »

It’s About the Ingredients

There was a time when I used to cook a lot and I loved it. Now I eat out a lot…and love it. For some reason this spring, I’ve been cooking a lot, and the more I cook, the more I realize why I love restaurants. Read More »

‘Tis the Season

It’s April, and the spring party season is here.

Last weekend, I had a party for my nephew and his wife, who were in town on spring break, and what started as a quiet dinner grew into quite a party that included his high school buddies, old neighbors, friends and family. Along the way, I decided to “outsource” a little and got online to check out my options. The last time they were in town, I made margaritas, appetizers and desserts and then picked up tacos and burritos from Baja Fresh. It was great, but since my Baja Fresh has closed, I had to find another alternative that would go with margaritas. Luckily, my nephew assured me that everything goes with margaritas. Read More »