Friday, April 24, 2009

At a time of menu makeovers, BJ's resets the bar

It looks as if restaurant chains have been pumping espresso into their menu development staffs again. A current project requires me to study recent changes in the bills of fare for several dozen major concepts, and the turnover is astounding. An OSHA crackdown may be in the offing, because some test-kitchen crews are clearly being worked 'round the clock.

Next month could bring a new standard to beat. Yesterday the CEO of BJ’s Restaurants ticked off the changes that’ll be evident in the casual chain’s May menu—as “many as 25 to 27,” said Jerry Deitchle.

Included, he said, will be “10 to 12 new bar drink recipes,” an effort that complements BJ’s ongoing efforts to add more craft beers, upgrade its wine selection, and adopt a “more contemporary” non-alcoholic beverage program.

Other changes include the addition of two new full-size pizzas, a flatbread appetizer pizza, an “absolutely terrific” Thai shrimp lettuce wrap, a new version of Texas-style chicken-fried steak, an updated pot roast, a revamped an renamed Italian chopped salad, and new presentations of its crispy potato skins and meatloaf.

The overhaul was based on a what officials described as a gap analysis of what competitors didn’t offer.

“We didn’t look and say, gee, we need to have a $5.95 lunch bowl or some $5.95 lunch item or a $9 item that we could bring in there,” CFO Greg Levin told analysts during the conference call. It's not "a value perspective that maybe you’re seeing from of [our] peers."

Meanwhile, a store in Austin is testing BJ’s gamble that it can become “the premiere retailer of craft beer in casual dining,” in Deitchle’s words. He explained that BJ’s proprietary brews are “surrounded” by 24 craft beers on tap. The set-up increased the likelihood that patrons would order beer, and boosted the overall average check, he disclosed.

The extended array has already been rolled into at least 20 more stores, Deitchle indicated. “We’re still learning a bit from it,” he said, but “every economic and consumer indication has been very, very positive.”

At the same time, just to keep corporate chef Ray Martin busy, BJ’s is working on a new kids’ menu.

Deitchle mentioned that Martin would be rewarded for his work with a free nine-month cruise around the world. Actually, he didn’t say that, but I figured I’d plant the idea. I feel for you, Ray.

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