Follow the Leader

The major chains are continually reviewing their menus—for relevance of items and categories, visual style and more. And if they’re a bit tardy in their evaluations, they wind up in the news. Witness McDonald’s almost desperate attempts to shore up sales by eliminating items and trying to be more like other, block-busting chains. Let’s take a look at success stories and lessons from the Big Guys.

Customized Copycats

It seems almost everyone wants to be Chipotle, currently with a toehold in Toronto and Vancouver. Basically three features are changing the game in fast food: 1) fresh and natural ingredients, 2) chosen by customers, and 3) assembled in front of them. Concepts from burgers to pizza to Asian cuisine are being tried. Chipotle wasn’t the first to attempt this style of foodservice, but as one of the most profitable, they’re setting the standard—and the pace.

And you? Think about add-ons for items such as pasta. One idea: proteins like chicken, shrimp or bacon. Or take a page from East Side Mario’s “Build Your Own Pasta”—noodles, sauce, toppers. Another idea: a “shopping list” for salads, from type of lettuce and cheese to veggies and nuts.
You could also menu small portions and large, including shareable platters. Other “your way” choices? Sauces and sides are great options; so is “bread, wrap or bowl.” Baton Rouge Steakhouse & Bar advertises “Group menus to meet your requirements.” Very smart.

Being Better

Fine dining is serving burgers, like Daniel Boulud’s restaurant, d|bar, in Toronto. In turn, burger joints are upgrading ingredients and menu style. Harvey’s is touting “8 Million New Ways to Make It Beautiful!”—including garlic mayo, jalapeno slices and tzatziki sauce. Earls Kitchen + Bar (58 locations and counting) is talking about the art commissioned for their menu, and how they “look at our space with care.” If you can review even the simplest items on your menu, as well as the menu experience, you may spot easy and inexpensive ways to be a bit more upscale. How about using nice recycled paper or higher-end graphics, for example?

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Nutritive Value

Most chains are trying to be healthier, or at least seem that way. Tim Hortons covers the topic thoroughly on its website, even listing 4 attachments along with calorie counts, FAQ and first-hand info from “nutrition ambassadors.” Milestones brags about its “gluten-friendly meals” and “vegetarian dishes.” Consider offering one entrée, a couple of sides, a special salad, a green smoothie, even a dessert that’s lighter on fat or sugar. Then promote them like crazy.

Many chains use icons to highlight “better for you” options. Swiss Chalet has its Healthier Alternative salads and sandwiches, including a trendy Sweet Heat Salad: mixed lettuce, roasted red peppers, carrots, sweet corn and Mandarin oranges in kiwi-lime dressing, plus sliced chicken breast glazed in tangy Thai sauce with toasted sesame seeds. Boston Pizza hired a dietitian to create its “Athlete’s Choice™” menu category.

Family & Fun

You’ll see special dishes for kids, but based on what the adults are having. For example, Keg Steakhouse’s Shaved Prime Rib Sliders. To appeal to the whole family, you’ll find more fun overall. Like humorous names for menu items. Hand-helds inspired by street food. Brownie pops. Drinks served in mason jars. A special Bits & Bites menu targeting the after-work and party crowd; St-Hubert does that well, with a variety of appetizers and sizes. Attracting those with kids, or trying to create an exciting, enjoyable ambience is a priority for many. If that fits your concept, too, explore chain websites and study their strategies.

Fusion, Breakfast

Mixing ethnic flavours is more popular than ever. Here’s a delicious case in point: chili-lime roasted chicken at St-Hubert. And the morning meal is getting bigger, too. Look at concepts such as Robin’s Donuts for pastries, Restaurant Eggsquis for homemade juices and weekend specials, and Subway for egg-white breakfast sandwiches.

Digital Do’s

Online menus are a must for chains. Eggsmart has an online “flip” version, which turns pages. Fun once you figure it out. Many chains still rely
on a PDF format, which experts caution is less user-friendly than one optimized for mobile devices, and also requires an extra step to view. Then there’s Franx Supreme, a Quebec mall staple, which apparently believes in keeping their exact menu a secret from the Web. Not a good idea in today’s foodie climate.

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