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Keeping A Balance Between Authenticity And Innovation

Menu developers have become busy this year acting in response to the swinging habits of restaurant consumers and their growing need to have a more personal connection with their meals—this according to the speakers at this year’s Menu Trends and Directions conference.

It turned out that most of the delegates’ concerns during the conference were centered on how their food can stand out in a somewhat saturated restaurant market. “In 2010, 250 of the country’s biggest restaurant chains permanently added over 3,100 food items to their menus and featured almost 2,800 limited time offerings,” said Nancy Kruse, president of the conference’s organizer The Kruse Co., and a menu trend specialist. “While many of these additions were modifications of their comfort food, a lot of it was also centered on the adjustments that were made to decommoditize their restaurant –looking for ways to give the consumers a reason to be loyal to them by focusing on their unique attributes.” Or what they often call a restaurant’s authenticity.

Many tried to highlight how they prepare their dishes—fried, grilled, toasted, while others highlighted the origin of their products. Others puts emphasis on their usage of uncommon ingredients, such as farro, Alascan crab or heirloom tomatoes. All these to make their menu items become authentic, as authenticity was reported to be a great success driver for restaurant and café menus with elegant café menu covers.
But in the recent 2011 Multi-Unit Foodservice Operator conference, or the MUFSO, industry leaders advised restaurant operators to differentiate authenticity from innovation, and urged them to be careful in balancing the two. A balance between innovation authenticity means being able to continually move the company onwards, and at the same time keep sight of the attributes and elements that costumers expect from the restaurant. The chief executives present in the conference panel—Buffalo Wild Wings’ Sally Smith, Pizza Hut’s Scott Bergen, Noodles & Co.’s Kevin Reddy and Sizzler’s Kerry Kramp—all agreed that a restaurant’s authenticity is what catches the interest of today’s modern consumer.

“We are in an era of disruption, and the only way that restaurants can stand out from the rest is to be something special,” said the panel’s moderator, Bill Taylor. New innovations are continually disrupted by newer, fresher things, even consumers find it hard to keep up anymore. Their interests and attention span are very short—the only way to keep their interest is for restaurants to stand on something special. Diners today are quite sure of what they want, too, and they want their restaurant experiences to be real and authentic.

Buffalo Wild Wings’ Sally Smith suggests that companies should make certain that any changes, new processes, or innovations should be analyzed and filtered, making sure that it will fit into the restaurant’s culture that its customers have grown to love. “As we plan on strategy and innovation, we need to make use of the funnel vision,” she said. “You can check out all those ideas from your diners and employees, but you should funnel these ideas through your brand strategy, just focusing on one or two.”