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Changing the way R&D is done, maintaining the creative spark, developing menu items that travel well and adapting to new ways of networking in the food industry are all key now.

R&D at a distance: How Denny’s and Tijuana Flats are adapting high-touch research into virtual reality

Changing the way R&D is done, maintaining the creative spark, developing menu items that travel well and adapting to new ways of networking in the food industry are points explored by Sharon Lykins of Denny’s and Joel Reynders of Tijuana Flats Tex-Mex during their panel at Restaurants Rise powered by MUFSO.

The hands-on nature of researching and developing a restaurant menu has been yet another thing this industry has lost during the pandemic. Going out into the world, tasting new trends and following hot leads has been replaced with Zoom meetings, takeout and training by Go-Pro.

“The challenge has been missing the actual R&D of getting out and seeing the trends,” said Joel Reynders, Vice President of Culinary & Executive Chef, Tijuana Flats Tex-Mex, who along with Sharon Lykins, Sr. Director, Product Innovation, Denny’s, shared their menu planning experiences in 2020, a year unlike any other.

The session, sponsored by Segafredo Zanetti, was hosted by Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor of Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Thorn asked the panelists how things have been different when it comes to R&D.

Both panelists said the process itself has become much more “virtual,” with Denny’s using Go-Pro cameras for training on the line at a distance, and Tijuana Flats doing a lot of Zoom meetings, and keeping any in-person meetings small and safely distanced.

Distanced but fresh ideas and fresh(er) delivery items

Consumers are fatigued—by the year in general—and “they are looking for something new,” Lykins said, adding that she’s been trying to find a balance between new things and comfort food constants. All of this shaded by the shadow of the unknown. One lesson she’s learned: People definitely still want pumpkin pancakes.

“When we were buying pumpkins in June or July, we have to be very conservative with how much we purchased, knowing that we wouldn’t be sure of the lay of the land,” Lykins said. “We made sure the marketing materials said, ‘while supplies last,’ which is a good thing, because we ended up running through the inventory halfway through the promotion. But we were very concerned with our franchisees getting stuck with dead inventory, so that’s the good news; the bad news is we could’ve sold more.”

Tijuana Flats introduced a new menu item, the Queso Crunch Burrito, during the pandemic that has been a smash hit, thanks in part to its ability to travel well. With no lettuce or tomato to get soggy and crunched up tortilla plus extra queso to keep the whole thing hot and crunchy, it’s been a deliverable dream item.

“We have such a large group that is eating at home,” Reynders said. “So, this is something we felt would travel better and it went over really well with our guests…that’s the fatigue part—they needed something new just to keep them coming back.”

The Tijuana Flats menu itself hasn’t been streamlined, but certain items—like nachos—simply aren’t on the to-go menu. “We looked at our online and third-party menus,” Reynders said, “and it’s going to be 35-40 minutes before a guest receives their food. Nachos just don’t travel well. But you can get them if you dine in. That’s a strategy to please guests on both sides.”

Overall, menu development during the pandemic has meant “smaller processes, move faster, take more on,” Reynders said. “It got a little crazy, but crazy is good at times.”

At Denny’s, Lykins and her team are “taking a look at our current pantry and saying, ‘How well does that travel?’” she said. “Some of our items, we had developed to eat in the restaurant, and they’re best eaten at the restaurant. So we did take a look…how can we make it better once it gets to your house?”

Denny’s R&D work several years ago on pancakes has “actually made our pancakes quite resilient,” Lykins said. “If you buy your dinner at Denny’s, buy a stack of pancakes to take home with you, put them in a bag and freeze them; they’ll still be good a week later.”

Lykins added that Denny’s has been taking a close look at packaging, too, adjusting the Denny’s Dome packaging away from Styrofoam but still keeping the venting for pancakes and moisture retention for sausage and eggs. “We’re reviewing all of our packaging to make sure that what it does for the Grand Slam, all our boxes do for every item. We want to make sure when it gets to your house, you still want it and you have a good experience.”

The customer experience

Handhelds and one-bowl meals have been the comfort Denny’s customers have been looking for, Lykins said.

“People want comfort food but that doesn’t mean it’s a meat and two sides,” she says. “The warm handhelds give you comfort moments, so we see these hot sandwiches and bowls and one-plate meals really becoming stronger and stronger.”  

“This has been a time for us to look at what’s really important, and what’s ancillary,” Lykins said.

One of the biggest parts of the customer experience in-person at Tijuana Flats was the hot sauce bar in which guests choose from a plethora of hot sauces with humorous names. “The hot sauce bar was closed, but our guests still want hot sauce,” Reynders said. So now, the brand is entering the virtual marketplace to sell hot sauces, including a new holiday habanero hot sauce called Smack Santa.

Register for MUFSO 2020 here, running virtual events from Oct. 1-29, Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon to 4:30 pm EST.

Title sponsors for MUFSO include the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo Foodservice and Johnsonville Foodservice.

Contact Tara at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie

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