Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Only yawning over new products is coming from the R&D team

Here’s a link that restaurant chains might want to check out for the well being of their menu development staffs. It’s an eBay listing for army cots. Clearly R&D teams have little time to swap chef’s whites for PJs when they’re cooking up new customer draws at the current pace.

Oh, and don’t forget to visit this site, too. It’s an online pharmacy that extends a price break on big tranquilizer orders. The products coming from the big brands’ test kitchens have typically been make-or-break products. Did the team come up with a new menu milestone, or will their handiwork be remembered as the new New Coke?

Burger chains are changing their burgers, pizza chains are reformulating their pizza, coffee chains are re-percolating their core coffee line, Mexican chains are rethinking what they put in a tortilla.

Think about it: With McDonald’s about to add a new chicken finger food called McBites, and Burger King introducing the Chef’s Choice this week as its new premium burger, almost all of the major fast-food chains are fiddling with their menu signatures.

What’s more, the alterations are introduced with direct or implied criticisms of the versions they replaced. Domino’s has made the most noise on that front, all but asking customers, “How could you have eaten what we formerly sold you?”

But Wendy’s isn’t much more discrete in its push of new French fries and burgers. Ditto with KFC and Kentucky Grilled Chicken. The only one showing subtlety is Taco Bell, which is quietly taking some salt out of its signatures.

McDonald’s hasn’t revealed what sort of noise it’ll make about McBites, a chicken version of popcorn shrimp (essentially deep-fried pieces of chicken meat, like the popcorn selections that have long been on the menus of KFC and Popeyes.) You can bet it won’t knock Chicken McNuggets or Chicken Selects in the introduction, but you have to wonder if customers will nonetheless regard McBites as an obvious alternative to McNuggets.

We’ll find out when McDonald’s rolls the new product next year.

The remake of fast-food signatures won’t end there. As RestaurantRealityCheck noted last week, Burger King is trying a new, thicker fry. Its stated goal of appealing to more women and children portends even more changes in products.

Might there even be some riffs on the Whopper?

This isn't the first time that such a thing has happened. In the mid-1980s, BK indeed changed the specs on its holiest of signatures, revamping the size of the Whopper's patty.

McDonald's tried to rejigger its bigger burgers so they could be garnished with lettuce and a tomato slice that wouldn't be rendered unpleasant by the heat of the patty they topped. Later, KFC introduced a bone-in roasted chicken, and Taco Bell tried reduced-calorie versions of its main items.

They all joined the Edsel in the annals of product failures.

But there are different dynamics--and learnings from those misfires--in play this time. Technomic noted in releasing some research yesterday that the fast-casual sector is influencing restaurants of all stripes. No where is that impact more obvious than in the traditional quick-service market, which has the most to lose from fast-casual's rise. Is it really a surprise that former Wendy's CEO Roland Smith publicly compared the chain's new burger line to what's available at Five Guys?

Talk amongst yourselves about it. But try to keep the noise down. The R&D teams need to catch up on their sleep.

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