Don't Let Menu Innovation Detract from Customer Service!

Menu innovation is neccessary for long-term success but it can create a chain reaction that negatively affects cutomer service. Juan Martinez reviews a few pitfalls and gives his expert advice on how to avoid them.

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There has been quite a bit written about the impact of menu innovation on customer service of late. For example, the latest drive-thru study by QSR Magazine shows a degradation of service by many concepts, including longtime industry leader Chick-fil-a, which has experienced a negative impact on peak throughput. The suggestion is that new menu options have impacted speed of service for a number of concepts.

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Menu innovation is a concept I have covered in the past and I firmly believe that concepts that don't evolve their menus can die. At the same time, concepts that innovate incorrectly can kill themselves. So what's a concept to do? The answer is to innovate correctly. I call this efficient menu innovation. Allow me tell you about this crazy notion and how can you follow it.

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For starters, concepts need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Operationally, in what areas does the business excel? What can the operation deliver well? What's the operation's Achilles' heel? Understanding these things is important since any menu innovation has to coexist with the operation's existing menu and operational execution. The presence of new items impacts customer ordering patterns. The key is maximizing the new offering without compromising the hospitality associated with the existing menu items. Adding an inefficient process into a working environment where that already exists will not help matters. It would be like adding salt to a wound.

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To truly understand an operation and its capabilities, analytically and objectively research the business, facility usage and sale of the various menu items during peak and non-peak periods. Many times, concepts will carefully analyze how new menu items fit within their peak periods, not realizing that the restaurant actually operates during non-peak periods most of the day and that during these slower volume times, many more customers actually experience the new products and the impact on other products and customer service.

For example, a customer may place an order for a new item while using the drive thru. The staff will inform that customer of a potential delay in delivering this order at the window, thus helping manage expectations. But this also impacts the next car in line, where the driver is not aware of the prior vehicle's delays. Keep in mind, delaying a single care in a drive-thru line impacts all of the cars in the queue.

Once a concept understands the operational challenges it faces, the next step is to figure out in detail what it takes to produce the new items. In doing so, the concept's management team needs to streamline all the aspects of the new item to be able to offer it efficiently, minimizing the impact on new and existing customers. In other words, make sure the design eliminates any possible inefficiencies and delays that the operation and its staff can control.

A great example of recent menu innovation is the McCafe. If you follow the history of McCafe you will understand what I am saying. McDonald's transferred its McCafe concept to the U.S. from Europe and applied it in the lobby, as was done overseas. The results were not very good, at least at first. McDonalds retrenched, went to search what it would take to be able to offer this coffee-driven menu to all customers, including those in the drive thru. What the McDonald's team came to realize is that total production time is critical to avoid having a negative impact on the chain's core drive-thru service. So McDonald's worked with suppliers to develop technology to deliver equivalent service times. Additionally, McDonald's developed a design within the layout that enables easy product delivery to both the front counter and drive-thru. The rest is history!
Just like this example shows how the right equipment application becomes a huge enabler of menu innovation, other aspects of the efficient menu innovation journey that operators need to consider include:

  • Processes and procedures – streamline production steps
  • Product formulation – minimize cook times and maximize hold/transfer times
  • Labor deployment – have "the right labor" deployed in "the right place" at "the right time"
  • Work station design – ensure optimum employee ergonomics and drive efficiency of labor

Consider all of these additional areas to enable the most synergistic integration of new menu items within the existing core menu base. Doing so minimizes the impact to the existing customer base. Without this optimum integration, menu innovation can impact customer hospitality and service dramatically, reducing the potential sales and profit impact.


You might also enjoy reading You Want What? Balancing Menu Innovation and Kitchen Design from our sister publication, restaurant development + design.

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