Building a reliable menu

When I first got involved in this business in 2004, I thought the idea of a “rotating” menu was a big selling point. Unlike a restaurant where the menu is always the same month after month, the MA idea presented all new variety and could expose customers to all sorts of meals they would more than likely never have the chance to try. Instead of just serving the same thing over and over again, customers would really be able to expand the meals they offered their families and they wouldn’t get tired of the offerings.

I’m starting to change that opinion. I’m starting to see quite a bit of validity and stability in offering a more stable or “signature” menu. The idea of having old favorites that customers can get anytime they want could create customer loyalty and brand recognition.

For example, a menu of 12 items that are always available and a “rotating” menu might work out quite a bit better than always changing the menu around. If customers can’t find 6 or 12 meals they like they can always grab a few they know and like. I know there are flank steak and chicken recipes which have been a huge hit with customers and instead of bringing them back every now and again, maybe a more formal menu would be a better option.

Dream Dinners does their “Best of the Best” where they bring back their favorites for a month and almost all the stores bring back high demand meals every few months. It might be better just to leave those as permanent items for customers to choose. It could easily cause the effect of associating a store name with a food type and instead of having to wait for certain items to come back and perhaps losing interest in the idea, customers could pick up meals they like anytime.

I still like the idea of a menu that changes, but from the standpoint of building name recognition and creating meals customers really want, having a menu that is always available may be a key to more return visits.

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5 Responses to “Building a reliable menu”

  • indie owner:

    Didn’t MealMakers try something like this–5 or 6 always available, and then the usual rotating menu? Maybe it was Super Suppers. I wish we had done more of this. We did carry a few entrees for consecutive months because they were so popular. I did learn not to worry about repeating certain items quite often. Our side menu–about 20 items–only changed marginally throughout the year.

    Food and labor costs would be better if you weren’t changing the menu every month, and I see lots of stores that actually close down for a few days to accomplish the menu change.

  • MA owner:

    A local mom and pop tried this and went out of business. Customers were coming to my store because of the variety. They get tired of the same old. I think rotating a few signature dishes a few times a year and then having a best of the best month is a great idea. DD customers voted for the best of the best. Store owners had their favorites back in July. It gives the customers a chance to ask for what they want. At the end of every month each DD store sends requests to Home Office depending on customer feedback. Favorites will be brought back more frequently than those that are not crowd pleasers. It is really important to listen to what the customer wants here.

  • Quix:

    Every owner has to determine who their core customers are and who their potential customers are, and see which is more promising. One clearly has market data on their side to pursue a menu that is signature and stable. Of course, one of the benefits of MAs is that they can be flexible, too, so there’s no reason not to have a portion of the menu that is seasonal or trendy or exciting because it is always new. In other words, I don’t think the evolving MAs are gonna completely alienate their traditional base. At least i think that if I’m betting on what customer restaurant industry data has tended to show.

    I couldn’t argue with an MA who has its customers who like a new menu every month (even if a few are always reprises from previous months). Perhaps if most customer traffic are those who enjoy something new every month, pre-check out the menu in advance on the web, and support the traditional MA menu concept then there is no reason to change. The question is whether the base of customers like this is enough to support and grow the business enough to be comfortably profitable. No doubt in some places this is true. In our local area this doesn’t appear to be true since more have failed than succeeded. And those who are succeeding have changed from the traditional MA model, either from the start or this year. Besides my local market there is MA industry trends that show this traditional menu planning is not the way to go: we are not as healthy an industry as media would lead us to believe. Tuckerbox has done a tremendous job building this site around that clear and present challenge.

    And I agree with Tuckerbox’s post above that if walk-in is the way to go one is more apt to be successful if one can maintain psychological trust with the customer. Customers of this variety are more apt to visit a place because they already expect to find what they crave. It is proven in fast-food and casual sit-downs, for example, that many people who go in to try something new usually still get something they’ve already tried. (So new recipes are worthy to develop even if for the food traffic they draw.) But conversely, new items do sell too but largely because there is a trustworthy “brand” menu upon which their foundation relies.

    For a small MA, going completely to a signature, non-changing menu is risky because you have to get the fit just right for the local market–and one would have to completely reinvent their entire business because this would undoubtedly alienate their entire “variety” customers. It’s unfortunate that a local mom and pop appears to have failed with the solution Tuckerbox is arguing for because there really are mounds of data supporting this evolution of the MA industry. If I were consulting this local, I would be apt to look closer at their particular execution of the model to make sure we are seeing the whole picture.

    I think DD may have the mass to “stay the course” with their traditional model and carve a successful niche. I won’t fault them that. But if everyone does it then it dilutes the industry and remains as it presently stands: very little brand strength among the different chains. We need to have brands willing to invent a new model and unique brand identities for the MA–that still delivers on its core value to the customer. Right now we have two of the top fours that have new, experienced investment groups behind them headed this direction. I’m more excited for the prospect of the latter. Yet it would be great to have DDs and their rotating, session-driven concept remain within the industry as well. No doubt for some customers it is a great fit–as long as for any indivudual stores there are enough of customers like that to grow a business.

  • As time went on a lot of our customers where having trouble deciding on 6 meals let alone 12. And they would almost always say “I should have made some more of …” And then they’d ask when we would have it again.

    I’m sure the results will be different all over. Some people like the ever changing variety, some want a menu they can rely on. Personally I like the menu changes (even though it is a ton of work to switch), but from many of the customers I heard make comments they seem to want some old favorites at hand. I still think having both styles would be most effective. Maybe you could have 6 items as you staple menu, but drop one off after a month or two and bring a new one on, so it’s still “stable” but also has some variety to it. Perhaps during the month one item really takes off and you add it to the favorites will one of the others sits out for a short time.

    Or maybe you just constantly build a favorites menu while you keep changing the regular menu. Especially if you get an item which “I know my kids will eat this!”

  • Dinner Zen:

    It was meal makers who has the standing menu (from their freezer only) of signature/popular favorites. They also rotate a regular and light menu every other week. You can order a mix of the two. Not sure how any of that works out for them.

    We’ve added a crustless quich/baked strata type dish to our grab and go that will be available for at least the near term. It was an incredibly popular menu item– we ran it twice in the six months we’ve been open and both times it was a big seller. We regularly get requests for that dish when it’s not on the menu. So, for us it was a no brainer.

    Other than that dish, we’re still feeling our way through the maze of what is most popular and has the mass appeal to stay in our freezer from month to month. We do have some long(er) standing side dishes we’ve kept on the menu for a few months that continue to hold their ground.

    We’re surrounded by gourmet groceries, costcos and sams so some of the standard “staples” e.g. enchiladas that might have larger and more consistent appeal are had for less than what we could do it for. Maybe not as tasty…or as easy to get in and out of as we could be.

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