Menu Simplification: Maintaining Your Focus

John-NYC-238x300By John Matthews, founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc.

Foodservice operators have long wrestled with the challenge of balancing the demand for increased menu options by customers with that of menu simplification. While a focus on systems and procedures at quick-service restaurants (QSR’s) still drive most operations, these are often at odds with growing diversity of customer taste preferences. And this continual dichotomy doesn’t appear to be subsiding.

Last week in a study released by QSR magazine and Insula Research regarding drive-thru performance, the average time spent at drive-thru’s at seven leading chains, “rose to just more than three minutes, which amounts to eight seconds longer than a year ago.” Two factors are contributing to this – the average number of cars continues to rise (up 9% from the previous year) and the increased complexity of the menu.

“Driving this increase in speed of service time is these more complex menu items,” said Sam Oches, the editor of QSR magazine, which covers quick-service and fast-casual restaurants. “Consumers are demanding more fresh, upscale menu items from fast-food restaurants and as these chains are answering that demand, the new menu items take a little more time to assemble.”

Operators need to be cognizant of these trends, yet remain cautious not to deviate too far from their core operations or run the risk of failing to please anyone.  Items to consider are as follows:

Systems and Procedures: It all starts with operational systems and procedures. Chains that have mastered efficient operations are more easily able to onboard new products and assortments more seamlessly than shoddy operators. If your systems and procedures are loose, your overall operation will become more exposed as menu complexity infiltrates your operation. It’s far better to execute flawlessly than to expand your menu and fail at its execution.

Product Assortment: Operators should always heed to the 80/20 rule when planning their menu. While there is a tendency to try and cater to “my cousin is a Pescatarian therefore…”, operators should exercise stringent discipline in their menu development. Attempting to create a menu that addresses every minority niche can complicate the operation to a point of aggravating the core customer. Tread cautiously when you want to be “all things to all people”.

Inventory Management: Streamlining your menu does not always mean not offering what the customer wants. It simply means being more strategic with the selection of menu items and ingredients that can be used in multiple applications. Focus on core ingredients that provide customer acceptance as well as full utilization of ingredients. Savvy operators run their inventories tight with little waste. For instance, one of my corporate background experiences managed inventory very effectively creating 30 sandwiches from six meats, two breads and one cheese.

Don’t Forget Customer Services: The menu is one component of the customer experience. Other attributes include quality, friendliness and speed of execution – each equally critical. While the drive-thru times continue to rise, careful consideration should be accounted for to the consumer benefit of expanded menu items becoming crippled by increasing drive thru or walk-up times. These attributes are not mutually exclusive. At some point the downfall of an operation may no longer be the lack of menu options, but rather the increased time associated with executing those customer options.

Operators should tread lightly on expanding their menus in order to maintain efficient operations. Following the 80/20 principle is a good rule of thumb in order to manage “menu creep” and keep the customer experience in tact. Straying too far from your core customer in order to address every fringe request, may cause a slow erosion of your sales from which it may be difficult to recover.

John Matthews is the founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises, Inc., a strategic planning and marketing services firm that specializes in helping businesses grow in the restaurant, convenience and general retail industries.  With more than 20 years of senior-level experience in retail and a speaker at retail-group events throughout the U.S., Matthews has recently written two step-by-step manuals, Local Store Marketing Manual for Retailers and Grand Opening Manual for Retailers, which are available at www.graycatenterprises.com.

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